29 October 2014

How Does a Dog's Brain Respond to the Smell of a Familiar Human?

And what does it tell us about the importance of people to their dogs?

Science on whether our dogs love us, like this happy dog and girl at sunset
Photo: hitmanphoto / Shutterstock

New fMRI research by Gregory Berns et al (in press) shows that dog’s brains respond differently to the smell of a familiar human compared to an unfamiliar human and other canines – suggesting that certain people are special to their dogs.

The research focussed on a part of the brain called the caudate, which has been much investigated in humans, monkeys and rats. The scientists explain that “caudate activity is correlated with salient, usually rewarding signals that cause the animal to change its behavioural orientation to approach or consume the stimulus.”

Previous research by the team showed that this part of the brain lights up when the dog is given a hand signal that means it will be given a treat, confirming that caudate activation in dogs is connected with rewards.

The results showed that the caudate was activated significantly more in response to the smell of the familiar human than to any of the other smells – even the familiar dog. The scientists say,
“Importantly, the scent of the familiar human was not the handler, meaning that the caudate response differentiated the scent in the absence of the person being present. The caudate activation suggested that not only did the dogs discriminate that scent from the others, they had a positive association with it. This speaks to the power of the dog’s sense of smell, and it provides clues to the importance of humans in dog’s lives.”
Does this mean we can say that dogs love us? It’s certainly the case that when people look at photographs of loved ones, the same part of the brain is activated. But it's hard to interpret the activation on the scan in terms of the dog's subjective experience.

The researchers caution there is another possible explanation in terms of conditioning. It may be that the familiar person had previously given the dog food and so the scent was simply eliciting a conditioned response. The researchers say they think it unlikely it is a conditioned response, because it was typically the handler – not the familiar human – who was responsible for feeding the dog.

The results also showed that the olfactory bulb in the brain was activated by all five smells. This is not surprising but it is useful to know the result is as expected. The canine brain presents a bit of a challenge for fMRI studies – training needs aside – simply because of the great variety of head shapes in dogs. 

12 dogs took part in the study. They had all previously taken part in fMRI research, in which they had to lie absolutely still during the scan. The smells came from swabs taken from the armpit of humans and from the perineal-genital area of dogs.

The scents used in the study were of a familiar human, an unfamiliar human, a familiar dog, an unfamiliar dog, and the dog’s own scent. The familiar human was not the dog’s main caregiver – as that person was present during the scan – but someone else from the household, typically the husband or child of the main caregiver. The familiar dog lived in the same house.

The dogs were trained using positive reinforcement and models of the equipment.  A clicker was used in initial stages of the training, but since the equipment is noisy it would not be heard during the scan itself. The dogs were taught a hand signal that meant they would get a reward, and this was used to replace a clicker in later stages of training. 

The training specific to this study included preparing the dog for a different head-coil than in previous scans, and getting used to having scent-impregnated cotton wool swabs put under the nose while they remained still.

The number of dogs is small, and there are always trade-offs in the statistics used to make sense of fMRI scans. But the results are very intriguing, and we look forward to future research from this team.

The full paper is available (open access) at the link below. Photographs of the dogs who took part are on page 3.  You might also be interested to read about subsequent research from this team on dogs' preferences for food and social interaction

How do you know you have a special place in your dog’s heart?

Berns, G., Brooks, A., & Spivak, M. (2014). Scent of the familiar: An fMRI study of canine brain responses to familiar and unfamiliar human and dog odors Behavioural Processes DOI: 10.1016/j.beproc.2014.02.011

If you enjoyed this, you might also like:
Dogs Can Haz BrainScanz and EEG?
Canine Neuroscience

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22 October 2014

Are All Labrador Retrievers the Same?

Or do show dogs and field dogs vary in temperament? And are there differences between chocolate Labs, yellow Labs, and black Labs? Science has the answers.

Three Labrador Retrievers, Chocolate, Yellow and Black: The differences between colours

It’s often said there are personality differences between Labrador Retrievers bred to show (conformation dogs) and those bred to work (field dogs). And chocolate labs have a reputation for being different than black labs and yellow labs. Is it true?

Research by Sarah Lofgren et al (Royal (Dick) Veterinary School, University of Edinburgh) investigates.

The American Kennel Club describes the temperament of the Labrador Retriever as friendly, active, and outgoing. Labrador Retrievers are in the Sporting group. The AKC says,
"Labs are famously friendly. They are companionable housemates who bond with the whole family, and they socialize well with neighbor dogs and humans alike. But don’t mistake his easygoing personality for low energy: The Lab is an enthusiastic athlete that requires lots of exercise, like swimming and marathon games of fetch, to keep physically and mentally fit."
Although many Labrador Retrievers are family pets, some work as hunting dogs while others are bred for the show ring. There’s a difference in appearance between field (or working) Labradors and conformation (or show) dogs.

Some people think they have different personalities too, so scientists decided to find out.

Almost 2000 owners of Labrador Retrievers registered with the UK Kennel Club completed a demographic survey and the C-BARQ, a questionnaire that assesses canine personality. The survey included questions about exercise, and whether the dog was a family pet or a working dog used for retrieval or as a show dog.

Gundogs were given higher ratings for trainability, fetching, and attention seeking than show dogs and pets. They were also rated as less likely to bark, less fearful of loud noises, and less likely to have a stereotypy (unusual behaviour).

Most of these are not surprising as they fit with the requirements of a dog that has to work at retrieval in the field. For example, it’s good they are considered less fearful of loud noises since they will routinely hear gunshots as part of their work. They need to be good at retrieval, and they will spend periods of time waiting in between retrieves.

"Dogs who get less exercise may become bored and frustrated."

The show dogs were rated as less fearful of humans, objects and noise, less aggressive to people who are not the owner, and less agitated when ignored. Again most of these fit with the requirements of a dog that will perform well in the show ring, where there are unfamiliar people and sounds, and the dog will be handled by the judge who is a stranger to them.

Compared to black and yellow Labradors, chocolate Labs were given lower ratings for trainability and fear of noises, and higher ratings for unusual behaviours. Compared to black Labs, they scored lower on fetching but were more excitable and more likely to be agitated when ignored; however these were not different compared to yellow labs.

It is not known if the genes for coat colour also affect behaviour in this breed. It is also possible that other genes exist by chance at greater levels in certain kinds of Labrador, particularly since some dogs were related. 

Science shows chocolate Labs like this one are a little different from other Labradors
Photos: c.byatt-norman (Shutterstock)

One of the nice things about this study is the range in the amount of daily exercise; while some dogs had less than an hour, others got more than four hours of exercise a day.

In general, the dogs who got more exercise were less fearful of humans and objects, less likely to have separation anxiety, and less aggressive. The authors suggest that dogs who get less exercise may become bored and frustrated.

One potential confound the researchers acknowledge is that dogs originally bred to work, who subsequently turn out not to be very good at it, may then become family pets instead. Hence it is possible that the dogs kept solely as pets include some ‘failed’ working dogs.

The results are correlational and do not show causality. The differences between the two types of Labrador Retrievers could be due to genetics (being bred for a different purpose), environment (being raised and trained differently), or a combination.  

In addition, the results rely on reports from owners who are likely aware of widely held beliefs about the breed.

The scientists say,
“This large-scale study of behavioural characteristics in Labrador Retrievers revealed a number of associations between physical, lifestyle and management characteristics of the dogs and personality traits. The explanatory factor with the largest overall effect was the Working Status of the dog, where pets showed dispositions that are generally considered less desirable than those of Gundogs and Showdogs.”

The study is fascinating because it looks at personality differences within one breed, which is unusual. It also shows a relationship between exercise and temperament.

The higher ratings for trainability amongst gundogs – who have received large amounts of training – make me wonder if this is a fixed trait, or if training leads to increased trainability.

Many people think Labrador Retrievers are the perfect family dog. What kind of Labrador do you prefer?

P.S. If you lead a Lab to water, should you let them swim? and do you ever wonder about the lifestyle of the average Labrador Retriever?

Reference Lofgren, S., Wiener, P., Blott, S., Sanchez-Molano, E., Woolliams, J., Clements, D., & Haskell, M. (2014). Management and personality in Labrador Retriever dogs Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 156, 44-53 DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2014.04.006

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15 October 2014

My Dog Comes First: The Importance of Pets to Homeless Youth

Dogs and cats have both advantages and disadvantages for street-involved youth.

Why do homeless people have pets, like this man with a GSD?
Photo: everst (Shutterstock)

Research by Michelle Lem et al (University of Guelph) asks homeless young people (aged 18-24) what their pet means to them. Previous studies have focussed on the benefits to homeless people of owning a dog or cat. The aim of this study was to get a balanced picture of both the advantages and disadvantages. 

Ten homeless young people took part in in-depth interviews about their pet. 8 of them had a dog, and 2 had a cat but had previously had a dog whilst homeless. Most lived on the street or in a vulnerable housing situation (squatting/couch-surfing), and three had found stable housing.

The main theme to emerge was that of putting the animal first. Everyone in the study said they put their pet first, even if this meant suffering hardship themselves. For example, they would not take up housing if they could not bring the animal with them. This shows the value they place on the companionship they get.

The authors point out that for some youth their relationship with their pet is the most meaningful relationship they have, and potentially the only loving relationship in their life. For example, one youth said, “My relationship with MacKenzie [the dog]… is the best I ever had.”

Some young men described sleeping on the street because they were unable to find a shelter that would allow pets. Another had become homeless because the dog was not allowed at the relative’s apartment where he had been living. 

One man described how he had a job, but with no home he had nowhere to leave his dog while he went to work. At first he found someone to mind the dog for him during the day, but they were not reliable which meant that sometimes he could not go to work, and so he lost the job.

Pets helped people in several ways, such as providing motivation to find housing that would allow pets, so that the dog would have a roof over its head. For example, one said, “I love him and I get a place for him. Really, like, if it wasn’t for him, I’d be on the streets.” 

Some participants said the pet helped them to stay out of trouble with the police and to use less drugs. (Some participants did not mention drug use).

There were different views about begging, with some saying it was wrong to take an animal begging, and others liking to because it meant they made more money.

There were stresses associated with looking after an animal. One young woman said, “It’s really hard taking care of them because I can’t always get them food… I’m worried that something might happen to them.” Several people had lost an animal, in one case when it was run over, and in two cases when it was taken in by animal control (following arrest/being sent to jail) and subsequently euthanized.

The authors say,
“Companion animals appear to serve as a vehicle for youth to learn about unconditional love, trust, and constancy in a relationship. With such strength of attachment, it is not surprising that youth consistently choose to forego opportunities for shelter, housing and employment in order to be with their companion animals. Although these choices may be to the detriment of their own health and success in getting off the street, for some youth this “Pet before self” theme may be a driver for reducing their use of drugs and hence number of arrests, as well as beneficially affect their daily activities by creating structure and routine.”
The research took place in Toronto and Ottawa, and involved very detailed interviews with a small number of people. The advantage is a rich dataset, but it is not possible to generalize from such a small sample and so more research is needed.

The recommendations will be especially helpful to organizations that cater to homeless people. Suggestions include allowing pets in some shelters, schemes to make pet food and veterinary care available to the homeless, and even dog daycare at shelters to help people transition into employment.

Some organizations have programs to assist with pet food and vet care for homeless and low income people. For example, the BC SPCA has an outreach program called Charlie's Food Bank, which goes to Vancouver's DownTown East Side every Thursday morning.

The importance of housing does not only apply to people who are homeless – lack of suitable housing is a very common reason for companion animals to be surrendered to humane societies. Making more pet-friendly housing available would benefit both people and their pets.

You might also like: Homeless youth with pets are less depressed than those without

Lem, M., Coe, J.B., Haley, D.B., Stone, E., & O'Grady, W. (2013). Effects of companion animal ownership among Canadian street-involved youth: A qualitative analysis Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare, XL (4), 285-304.

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08 October 2014

The Surprising History of Veterinary Medicine for Dogs and Cats

And the ‘dangerous’ woman who played a vital role.

The surprising history of how cats (like this tabby) and dogs came to be treated by vets
Photo: Bildagentur Zoonar GmbH
We are used to the idea that veterinarians treat dogs, cats, rabbits and other small animals, but it wasn’t always so. Before the automobile, the main role for vets was in the treatment of horses. As the number of horses declined, two British government reports (in 1938 and 1944) suggested vets should specialize in the treatment of farm animals. 

The change to small animals is often explained as due to increasing standards of living and people’s desire for companion animals after the Second World War. A new report by Andrew Gardiner of the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies (University of Edinburgh) shows the real reason is the rise of animal charities, and the role of one woman in particular: Maria Dickin.

It’s a tale of politics and intrigue. Gardiner says that in the period between the two wars, “a new territory of animal care was opening up. By the time the veterinary profession realized that things were moving beyond its control, it was almost too late.”

Maria Dickin founded the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals of the Poor in a basement in 1917. Dickin was in her 40s and had no previous experience of looking after animals, but she saw the need for them to receive care. “Bring your sick animals! Do not let them suffer! All animals treated. All treatment free” said the sign.  

The organization grew enormously. Ten years later, they treated 410,000 animals in a year and had even opened clinics in other countries. Although the people who took their animals to the PDSA would not have been able to afford to go to a vet, the veterinary profession still looked down on the organization. 

The people who worked at PDSA clinics had no veterinary training. This was not illegal, because the law at the time only prevented people from calling themselves veterinary surgeons without training, not from caring for animals. The large number of animals passing through the clinics meant that staff quickly became experienced, and apparently many vets at the time – more used to horses – were not good at handling small animals. 

In 1926, when a woman called Sarah Martha Grove Hardy left the PDSA £50,000, the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons tried to claim some of the funds. G.H. Livesey, a prominent vet, called people involved in animal welfare ‘cranks’ and said, “All of us who have had experience in dog practice, know that there are ladies (generally childless) who have to turn their attention to something, and nearly always they turn to dogs.”

The funds from Grove Hardy were used to set up a Sanatorium in Essex. Gardiner describes it as “a comprehensive treatment, training and headquarters complex with numerous wards, stables and kennels, X ray and UV light treatment facilities and a spacious operating theatre. Educational facilities included lecture rooms and a library.” The Sanatorium had just one actual veterinary surgeon. As well as treating animals, it was a training facility for PDSA staff.

The vets of the time were not keen on other animal charities either. Writing in 1931, the then-secretary of the RCVS Warwick Fowle said "The lady [Maria Dickin] is dangerous and energetic; the RSPCA is timid and apathetic."

Since the law could not be used to close down the animal clinics, the veterinary associations turned to a moral argument about animals having a right to ‘proper’ diagnosis and treatment. Gardiner writes that they were also beginning to realize that treating dogs (and cats) could be enough to support a business. Changes in the law were being considered that would have meant the PDSA had to hire vets – not that many would have wanted to work there.

Against this backdrop, Dickin (now retired from some of her PDSA roles) and the President of the RCVS, G.H. Livesey (he of the ‘cranks’ jibe above), came to an agreement. Large PDSA clinics would hire a veterinarian, while smaller ones would refer to a local vet when appropriate (and local vets did not have to take the work if they did not want to). 

Although some vets supported the change, many did not. One wrote “I would like to point out … that the ‘dear little doggy’ stuff is quite a futile line to take with our profession. Some of us, thank goodness, have a real job of work to do. He mentions little doggies and pussies having a vote in the matter. Believe me, if this were the case, the cats would be too occupied in passing anti-castration laws to worry about the PDSA.”

Nonetheless, the changes went ahead and over time vets developed a better appreciation of dogs and cats. In 1957 the British Small Animal Veterinary Association was formed. PDSA still exists today and provides free veterinary treatment to 2.3million animals a year in the UK. 

Gardiner says, “The role of Maria Dickin and the PDSA has been marginalized within the history of British veterinary medicine.” His account shows that, in developing a network of animal clinics that the veterinary profession had not imagined possible or desirable, they started a new discipline of small animal practice.

Gardiner, A. (2014). The 'Dangerous' Women of Animal Welfare: How British Veterinary Medicine Went to the Dogs Social History of Medicine, 27 (3), 466-487 DOI: 10.1093/shm/hkt101

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01 October 2014

What Encourages People to Walk Their Dog?

And is dog-walking a good way to persuade people to take more exercise?

How to encourage people to walk their dogs like this boy and his dog on a coastal path in England
Photo: Monkey Business Images / Shutterstock

We know that most people do not get the 150 minutes of exercise per week that is recommended. Could encouraging people to walk their dogs more often help, and if so, how best to go about it? A new paper by Carri Westgarth et al (2014) of the University of Liverpool reviews the state of current research.

Although to some dog owners a daily walk is an essential part of the routine, there are also people who never walk their dog. For example, a 2008 study in Australia (Cutt et al 2008) found that on average people walk their dog four times a week for a total of 134 minutes, and that 23% of dog owners never walk their dog. 

Encouraging more people to take their dog for a regular walk would be good for both the dog and owner.

The research found that as well dog-related and owner-related variables, aspects of the physical and social environment also influence dog walking behaviour.

The dog’s size, age and breed are related to dog-walking, and it seems that dogs that are regularly walked have fewer behavioural problems. This could be due to ongoing training and socializing during the walks, and/or it could be that dogs with behaviour problems are taken for walks less often because their owners simply find it too difficult. Dogs that pull on the leash, bark, behave badly or are fearful or aggressive are walked less often. Helping owners resolve these issues might enable them to take more walks.

As you might expect, the dog-owner relationship is an important part of their model. People who feel a strong emotional attachment to their canine companion, and who feel that the dog provides them with motivation and social support to walk, are more likely to walk their dog regularly. (Here in the CAPB household, the happy anticipation on the dogs' faces when it is time for walkies definitely provides motivation).  

The social environment can encourage or discourage dog-walking. Amongst the influences are feelings of safety in the neighbourhood, fear of loose dogs, and unhappiness with other dog owners not picking up dog faeces. 

The authors suggest a number of aspects of the physical environment that encourage dog walking. They say, “Accessible public open space for dogs and the provision of dog-related infrastructure within walking areas are also important to dog owners (e.g. clear signage, dog litter bags and bins, accessible water sources, fencing around designated off-leash areas, separation from children’s play areas, dog agility equipment, parks not being located near to busy roads and being well-fenced).”

In terms of encouraging more dog walking, the scientists suggest two main approaches. They say, “the evidence currently suggests that dog walking may be most effectively encouraged through: 1) targeting the dog-owner relationship to increase the sense of obligation to walk the dog as well as the emotional support the dog can provide to the owner; and 2) by the provision of dog-supportive physical environments.”

Of course, these health promotion activities would only target people who have a dog, but this is a sizeable proportion of the population. And one advantage to regular dog-walking is that people tend to go out in all weathers.

Cultural differences will also need to be taken into account. For example, in the US and Canada some people take their dogs to a dog park, a typically-fenced area where dogs can run around while their owners tend to stand still and watch. In contrast, these generally do not exist in the UK where dogs are allowed off-leash in many more areas. 

The paper is what is known as a meta-analysis, in which the existing research literature is scoured for relevant studies. One problem the paper identifies is that many studies are small-scale and there is little standardization. Differences in study design make it hard to generalize findings. Future research that uses standardized measures with a strong experimental design will be particularly welcome.

There’s a nice touch at the end of the article. Most journals require authors to state if they have any competing interests that might influence their work. In this case, they state, “All authors own a dog(s).” 

This is a thorough analysis of the literature on dog-walking and touches on more variables than there is space to cover here. The full paper is available (open access) at the link below.

What encourages you to walk your dog?

Cutt, H., Giles-Corti, B., & Knuiman, M. (2008). Encouraging physical activity through dog walking: Why don't some owners walk with their dog? Preventive Medicine, 46 (2), 120-126 DOI: 10.1016/j.ypmed.2007.08.015  
Westgarth, C., Christley, R., & Christian, H. (2014). How might we increase physical activity through dog walking?: A comprehensive review of dog walking correlates International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, 11 (1) DOI: 10.1186/1479-5868-11-83

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