26 March 2014

Animals, Pets and Vermin

What do animals mean to you and what role do they play in your life? These and related questions were recently asked of ordinary people by the Mass Observation Project in the UK, and the results, in a paper by Alison Sealey and Nickie Charles, are fascinating.

A mouse saunters by while a black-and-white cat sleeps
Photo: pjmorley / Shutterstock

Since 1937, the Mass Observation Project has been collecting information from ordinary people about life in Britain. Set up with the idea of creating “an anthropology of ourselves,” data collection continued until the early 50s when it stopped, and then resumed in the 1980s. Now, over 500 people are on the panel, and respond to open-ended questions three times a year. Researchers can commission questions, which is how this particular study came about. (If you live in the UK and are interested in Mass Observation, you can keep a one-day diary on Monday 12th May).

Sealey and Charles asked a number of questions about the role of animals in people’s everyday lives. 249 people replied and, while all responses were analyzed, the 103 responses that were sent in by email were analyzed electronically. Corpus linguistics is a type of analysis that looks at large text datasets and investigates things like which words tend to occur in close proximity to each other. 

Some people wrote extensive answers, and the corpus was almost 182,000 words. There were many participants who did some linguistic work around the labels that were used in the study, such as defining ‘animals’ as pets in some cases, or even as specific types of pets, as with one person who said, “My relationship with animals is better than it is with humans. I say animals, I suppose I mean cats really.”

Broad category labels, such as mammal and amphibian, were not used very often. Instead, people tended to refer to specific types of animal. For example, the word amphibian appeared just once in the corpus, but frog (in the singular or plural form) was used 30 times. Perhaps not surprisingly, dog(s) and cat(s) were the most commonly used words for types of animals. 

Insect lovers should know that the word insect appeared rarely. Although the researchers say one possibility is that insects have little impact on people, another explanation is that, for most people, the category ‘animal’ does not really include insects. Perhaps ‘insect’ is a category equivalent to ‘animal’. We are talking, of course, about people’s everyday knowledge constructs, not about official scientific nomenclature.

One aspect of the results that we found of particular interest relates to use of the words vermin and pets. Respondents were asked, “Do you consider any animals to be vermin?” Perhaps not surprisingly given the phrasing of the question, the word ‘consider’ often featured in people’s responses. Some people accepted the category of vermin. For example,

“I consider rats to be vermin as I hate everything about them!”

or, “I would consider some animals as vermin, particular rats, mice, cockroaches.”

Some responses were very specific, such as “The mice in the piano are vermin.” So they refer not to mice in general, but to a very particular set of mice. (We are feeling bad for the piano).

Other participants were less accepting of the term, or did not apply it in a global way, e.g. 

“I consider wild rats to be vermin, though tame rats are quite lovely.”

“I don’t consider most animals to be vermin as they are all just trying to survive”.

One of the interesting things about how people referred to pets is that they didn’t often use the word ‘own’. Instead they were much more likely to say ‘have’, e.g. “We have a pet cat and that’s about it.” Comments – sometimes negative – were often made about other people’s pets, and a look at the phrases that used the term ‘their pets’ reveals many comments that evaluate the human-animal bond. For example,

“It may give you an idea of how ridiculously fond some people get of their pets!”

“For some people their pets are their only friends”

“people abroad sometimes seem more reticent to take their pets to a vet.”

The study also looked at whether people were more likely to refer to particular types of animals in the plural or singular. For example ‘puppy’ and ‘kitten’ were more often singular, but ‘gerbils’ and ‘hamsters’ were more often plural. This may reflect people being more likely to have multiples of certain kinds of animals.

Some of the comments about the role of animals in people’s lives, particularly about them being in close relationships with people, were quite poignant. The responses show a range of experiences, from animals playing very little role (except as food), to being vitally important for companionship. It’s a useful reminder of the diversity of roles that animals play in our lives.

What do animals mean to you?

Sealey, A., & Charles, N. (2013). "What Do Animals Mean to You?": Naming and Relating to Nonhuman Animals Anthrozoos: A Multidisciplinary Journal of The Interactions of People & Animals, 26 (4), 485-503 DOI: 10.2752/175303713X13795775535652

05 March 2014

Will Work for Hot Dog?

How do scientists motivate dogs to take part in scientific research?

How do scientists motivate dogs to take part in research? Photo shows two German Shepherd Dogs take dog cookies from the oven
Photo: kitty / Shutterstock

Canine science relies on dogs taking part in experiments so that researchers can learn more about what dogs know or how dogs behave.

In some scientific studies dogs are allowed to act naturally, but in others they need to learn something such as how to operate an apparatus they haven’t seen before, or to observe people interacting.

Either way, you can’t guarantee canine cooperation. So just how are dogs are motivated during the course of the research itself?

Needless to say, food is a common denominator. We know that in dog traininggreat training treats can really help. Scientists have to consider what to use too, as dogs won't work for free. Many studies use sausage or hot dog.

For example, in one study that looked at whether dogs can recognize human emotional expression (Buttelmann and Tomasello, 2012), dogs were given a piece of sausage if they successfully chose the box containing it, rather than one containing wood shavings or garlic, after a human had peeked into the box and made an appropriate facial response.

An experiment to test whether dogs can smell the amount of food (Horowitz, Hecht and Dedrick, 2013) used pieces of hot dog in smaller or larger amounts.

Another study (Range, Huber and Heyes, 2011) refer to “a small piece of sausage” as the reward in training dogs to open a box. With up to 350 trials in the experiment proper, that’s potentially a lot of sausage. 

Other enticing food rewards are used too. Elgier et al (2009) writes that
“As reinforcer, small pieces of dry liver of 3g were used. In order to control the odor, both containers were greased with abundant liver before the experience.”

You can just imagine the dogs licking their lips, though they only received liver if they chose the correct one of two boxes by following a pointing gesture from their owner. Otherwise they were told “no” and shown that the liver was in the other box. 

Other studies use regular food, or a mix of kibble and treats. Burman et al (2011) used “two different types of food reward (standard food pellets and Frolic TM)”. They explain that,
“The dogs were familiar with both food types, receiving standard food pellets as their regular diet and being rewarded with Frolic during training.” 

In some cases, the researchers have made a note in the method section that they had to take account of food allergies. For example, in a study of to investigate whether dogs prefer food treats over verbal praise and affection (Feuerbacher and Wynne, 2012) most of the dogs were given a piece of Natural Balance, but one dog was rewarded with a piece of potato.

Although it may surprise some readers, this is fine: the thing that counts is whether or not the dog finds it rewarding. (If the dog didn’t like potato, then it would have been a problem).

"With up to 350 trials in the experiment, that’s potentially a lot of sausage"

Human preferences may also have to be taken into account, such as in Freidin et al (2013)’s study of dogs’ eavesdropping abilities. Sausage was used as a reward for the dogs, but they had to first observe an interaction between three people.

Although sausage might have been acceptable to a human also, instead they used cornflakes. Hence, at the start of the study, plates were prepped with cornflakes (for the human) and pieces of sausage (for the dog).

Disappointingly, some studies refer only to “food” or “treats” without specifying exactly what, so we can’t draw up a table of the most preferred food item.

What do you use when training your dog at home?

Burman, O., McGowan, R., Mendl, M., Norling, Y., Paul, E., Rehn, T., & Keeling, L. (2011). Using judgement bias to measure positive affective state in dogs Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 132 (3-4), 160-168 DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2011.04.001 
Buttelmann, D., & Tomasello, M. (2012). Can domestic dogs (Canis familiaris) use referential emotional expressions to locate hidden food? Animal Cognition, 16 (1), 137-145 DOI: 10.1007/s10071-012-0560-4 
Elgier, A., Jakovcevic, A., Mustaca, A., & Bentosela, M. (2009). Learning and owner–stranger effects on interspecific communication in domestic dogs (Canis familiaris) Behavioural Processes, 81 (1), 44-49 DOI: 10.1016/j.beproc.2008.12.023  
Feuerbacher, E., & Wynne, C. (2012). RELATIVE EFFICACY OF HUMAN SOCIAL INTERACTION AND FOOD AS REINFORCERS FOR DOMESTIC DOGS AND HAND-REARED WOLVES Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 98 (1), 105-129 DOI: 10.1901/jeab.2012.98-105  
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  
Horowitz, A., Hecht, J., & Dedrick, A. (2013). Smelling more or less: Investigating the olfactory experience of the domestic dog Learning and Motivation, 44 (4), 207-217 DOI: 10.1016/j.lmot.2013.02.002  
Range F, Huber L, & Heyes C (2011). Automatic imitation in dogs. Proceedings. Biological sciences / The Royal Society, 278 (1703), 211-7 PMID: 20667875

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