Category: Core thought

A Far Better Life for this dog!

A wonderful new life for this Pit Bull.

There are countless tales of dogs, for a variety of reasons, getting a leg up, it you pardon the pun!

The Pit Bull breed is a very intelligent dog and yet their reputation often gets in the way. From Pit Bulls being used in dog fights some time ago. B’rrr!

But when the Pit Bull is given a chance to better himself they don’t need a second chance at all!

Take this story of a Pit Bull being adopted by some firemen.

ooOOoo

Dog Left Behind By Her Family Hangs Out With Firefighters All Day Now

As soon as she walked into the firehouse, her tail was wagging, and she was licking and greeting everybody.”

By Elizabeth Claire Alberts

Published on 2/22/2017

The people who used to own Ashley hardly fed her, rarely took her outside and, in the end, they simply abandoned her.

Thankfully, Erica Mahnken, cofounder of No More Pain Rescue, and her fiance Michael Favor, rescued the 1-year-old pit bull in January of 2017.

Erica Mahnken, Ashley shortly after being rescued

“We got a phone call from somebody that there was a couple living in an abandoned house. They had no heat or electricity, and they had a dog there,” Mahnken told The Dodo shortly after the rescue.

When a snowstorm hit, the couple apparently left. “I guess they went to find somewhere warm to stay, and they had left the dog behind,” Mahnken said. “So as soon as we got the phone call, we ran and got her.”

Favor made Mahnken stay in the car while he ventured inside to find the dog. He’d later tell Mahnken how bad it was. “There was no electricity in the house — it was freezing,” Mahnken said. “No food, no water for her. The house was a disaster. The windows were broken, and there was feces all over the place.”

ERICA MAHNKEN

But Ashley was unharmed, and she looked like the most joyful dog when Favor walked her out.

“She came running down, super happy,” Mahnken said. “She jumped straight into my car.”

Ashley was thin and malnourished. “All you saw were her ribs — she was so skinny. And the vet later said she was 25 pounds underweight.”

They also noticed that Ashley had cigarette burns on the top of her head.

ERICA MAHNKEN

Since No More Pain Rescue doesn’t have a physical shelter, Mahnken and Favor needed to get Ashley straight into a foster home. They had friends in the New York City Fire Department (FDNY), and knew there used to be a dog at the Fort Pitt station. So Mahnken and Favor asked if the firefighters would hold onto Ashley until they found her a proper home.

Ashley seemed just fine with this arrangement.

ERICA MAHNKEN

“As soon as she walked into the firehouse, her tail was wagging, and she was licking and greeting everybody,” Mahnken said. “She was super happy. From where she came from, you wouldn’t really expect that. You would think that she’d be a little skittish, but she wasn’t at all.”

@PROBYASH

Not all that surprisingly, the firefighting team called Mahnken a few days later, asking to keep Ashley.

ERICA MAHNKEN

“They said, ‘We’re going to adopt her. We just love her so much. She is at home here,'” Mahnken said. “So I was thrilled. And as soon as I walked her in there, I knew that that’s where she belonged.”

@PROBYASH

Ashley now lives at the firehouse full-time.

@PROBYASH

“She’s constantly on the go – she goes on smaller runs with them, she goes on the fire truck with them,” Mahnken said. “They walk her about 30 times a day. They bring her on the roof to play. She’s constantly in the kitchen watching them eat. She has endless supplies of treats. She has the life over there.”

@PROBYASH


Ashley even has her seat in the fire truck, according to Mahnken.

@PROBYASH

“I’m so glad we got her into a home that will show her nothing but love, and not make her into the pit bull that people love to hate so quickly,” Mahnken said. “It was an unbelievable feeling to know that that’s where she belonged.”

Four years later, Ashley is still loving her life at the firehouse — and the fire fighters love her.

ooOOoo

Just another example of what good loving people can do for a dog and the dog’s obvious pleasure at being loved.

Perfect!

More serendipity

The continuing story of Alfie.

Stop Press

Alfie has had his operation and all is well! I don’t know more than that at the moment but I do want to share the journey from New York to Minneapolis with you. Because it is such a story of love and devotion.

(And I have just heard that Prince Phillip, Duke of Edinburgh, has died – oh, dear.)

ooOOoo

New York to Minneapolis road trip

April 5, 2021 By Mr Coyne

The week we travelled to the US, the East Coast was experiencing one of its winter storms. Snow threatening our progress overland to our destination. With this in mind, we worked with James Gallagher at Enterprise close to Westhampton Private Airport near Maine just outside NY, we arranged for a Jeep Gladiator to be waiting on the tarmac for us. The plan was to land, walk down the steps and into the Jeep, then drive around 20 hours across 9 States (New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota) taking it in turns, and stopping only when tiredness took hold to sleep. When I say drive around 20 hours, that’s just driving, not stopping to fuel, use a bathroom, eat, rest. Over 1,300 miles. A mammoth task.

At this point I’d already not slept in almost 24 hours

The plan hit the rocks as the jet approached Westhampton and were told the runway closed due to snow. We were diverted to JFK, and then Ubëred two hours back to our original airport. We could have tried to get a four wheel drive from JFK but we already knew getting something in the middle of a bad storm would be near impossible. Trying to fly internally from JFK to Minneapolis was off the table too as we had bought a lot of luggage with us, which we intended to leave in the US. Trying to get this through JFK, with all of this and a dog, a dog that potentially could have been turned away at the gate for being too big, was not worth trying to modify our plan.

Somehow our route through the Bronx is the Mayor of London’s fault

Snow on the ground we got our Jeep, and just had James had said when he sourced it for us – it looked unstoppable. He’d kindly shovelled out most of the snow from the pick-up bed. We headed out through rush hour NYC traffic towards Minnesota following the quickest route on Google Maps. Surprisingly through the Bronx. We made it through the other side and eventually stopped somewhere on the outskirts in search of a toilet and food. A Gladiator sits high off the ground, and we were already tired. As we pulled up outside a potential watering hole Renée opened the door and fell out, hitting the ground audibly so. Alfie was in her arms but had the foresight to recognise trouble and jump to safety. We went inside, one of us limping, to check ourselves over and eat. Luckily just bruising; limbs and pride. We were there a couple of hours, much longer than we intended, but the food and rest needed. It was a big, clean hotel and would have been a good place to stop, at the expense of making the next day even harder. We pushed on. Before doing so I looked at Google maps and realised I’d made a schoolboy error. Living in London and owning old cars is a constant maze avoiding paying the Congestion Charge and ULEZ (Ultra Low Emission Zone). My phone was still set to avoid these tolls, hence our route through the the centre on New York. Worse, the fastest route would now see us backtrack some of the way we’d just driven.

Enjoying a meal after avoiding disaster falling from the truck

The Gladiator proved its worth as the elevation climbed and snowfall increased. We kept going until tiredness eventually became too dangerous to ignore and we stopped somewhere, somewhere being my best guess at where as I was so tired. A room at a Holiday Inn. Alfie making friends with the front desk saw the $80 dog fee waved. We didn’t sleep long, maybe three hours and returned to the Jeep early around sunrise. Throughout the entire trip Alfie had sat up front on Renée’s lap as the rear seats of our crew cab style truck full of luggage (the pick up bed empty so our stuff remained dry and safe). I’d read that these Jeeps were not great over long distances, and my previous longest time in one, a Rubicon, was between Fargo and Minneapolis on roads closed due to snow. It was cold and as a passenger I got leg ache. From the driver’s seat it wasn’t too bad. I’m sure most people buy slab sided trucks like this, original Land Rover Defenders and G Wagons simply because they look good, but there is no denying when the conditions get tough they are incredibly capable. Well, maybe not the G Wagon as that’s simply a fashion accessory.

Moments before a face plant. Ouch

“Watching a sleeping poorly dog, all of us crammed up front with the heater blowing full pelt to keep warm, hour after hour, made me question my original judgement of travelling this way

Watching Alfred, a poorly dog, asleep on Renée’s lap, all of us crammed up front with the heater blowing full pelt to keep warm, hour after hour, made me question my original judgement of travelling this way. My thinking was to have Alfred in the air for the minimum time and then get him the rest of the way by road where he would not be squashed in a bag, could go pee whenever he needed, and I could deal easily with any seizures. The whole private jet decision happened very fast and I hadn’t really adjusted to the revised plan. Also the plan had been to land at Westhampton, not JFK where we could have easily boarded a domestic flight to Minneapolis. Hindsight always great, and beating yourself up over something already done when tired completely pointless. The important think was we were in the USA, and on our way to get Alfred the help he needed. Given the obstacles in our way just two days ago we really should be patting ourselves n the back.

Give us all ya got. Nothing could stop the Gladiator

Eventually, around three hours out from our destination, I could drive no more and we stopped in one of the fantastic US rest areas. These places are free from gas stations, usually have vending machines, and clean toilet facilities. They feel safe and good places to stop for a snooze. It was cold though, with a lot of snow and ice on the ground. We slept a while with the engine running and heater keeping us warm. When it is this cold, global warming is the last thing on your agenda.

Errrr, drive through donuts? I LOVE America guys
Why is there a sportsman on this packaging? Is it a race to get diabetes?

“We slept a while with the engine running and heater keeping us warm. When it is this cold, global warming is the last thing on your agenda.

I’ve been in this situation before. Driving while tired is super dangerous. I suspect more so than alcohol (within reason) and up there with texting. As a pilot once said over the tannoy of a flight to Bahrain years ago: better to get there late than not at all. But before long, Renée woke me and wanted to carry on. I managed the next hour before handing over the driving to her to get us the rest of the way. The two of us had dug really deep to make it.

Not the most economical, but fuel is cheap so we don’t care

Arriving at the Canopy in Minneapolis was a welcome sight. Alfred’s surgery was scheduled 10 days from now but we had an option to bring it forward should he deteriorate rapidly. We were where we needed to be. A huge victory and I could literally feel the stress lifting from me. 

Of course, we were only actually part way there, the real challenge was to come.

ooOOoo

And of course, as I mentioned at the beginning of this post, little Alfie has arrived in Minneapolis and has had his operation. In due coarse I will bring you the latest.

Serendipity

Funny how things fall out!

My son, Alex, recently sent me a link to a blog he had come across. It was to a website called https://aircooledbug.co.uk

It was about Andrew Coyne who with his wife, Renée, had come across to America in order to have an operation on his dog, Alfred. It was very moving. I then made contact with Andrew and asked him if I could have permission to republish. It was granted. Furthermore, Andrew went on to say:

Hi Paul,

The only place we could find to perform surgery and give him immunotherapy was the US. Getting to the US a massive challenge as the lock down restrictions and freedom of movement issues implemented by governments here and in the EU stopped us being able to travel. Hence chartering a private jet direct to New York.

Alfred is currently doing well with us here in the US and will not return to the UK. We will move here with him permanently and make our home in the one place that gave him a chance. 

Kind regards,
Anthony

So I am going to devote my next two posts to republishing two posts from Andrew’s blog. The first today is Coming to America.

ooOOoo

Coming to America

April 3, 2021 By Mr Coyne

The relief that knowing we would travel brought was unmeasurable. Private jets don’t come cheap, even discounted empty legs, but in this instance it didn’t matter. It was a welcome solution.

Up until the world was introduced to Covid-19, I had been a regular traveller to the US both with Renée who’s American, and on business as thinkerdoer work with a lot of US companies. I had an ESTA in place and checked it was still valid on Monday after we decided to take the flight to NYC.  On Tuesday morning it was pulled! I’m still not sure why but it would seem to be a response from the Biden Administration to control the recently announced ‘UK variant’. Mark at Charter-A and his team scrambled to get clearance for me from the US using our marriage certificate from Cornwall to prove I was a spouse of a US citizen and this initially appeared to satisfy them and clearance given.

The most unusual thing I have ever seen at airport security

On Wednesday morning we set off to Stansted. Somewhere on the M11 the phone rang, it was Mark saying the US had pulled my clearance again due to me visiting ‘red list’ countries in the last few months. Utter nonsense, and I explained the last place I had travelled was the US just prior to the lockdown when I visited North Dakota and Arizona. I even volunteered my bank statements to prove my case. We waited at the Inflite Executive Jet Centre at Stansted with our luggage already loaded for clearance. Eventually the US backed down and removed their marker, but this now meant reapplying for entry. The decision was made to leave the jet on the tarmac overnight and return the following day to give us time to organise it. Partly this was because the crew had already started logging hours and by the time a clear to fly issued we’d need a new crew. Not that it would have mattered, but I thought I would not be flying and the one time in my life I have paid for a private jet it would be the dog flying on it, not me. And Renée of course.

America, we are coming in hot!

“The best part was we were truly on our way to get Alfred some help, a chance to save him

Thursday went smoothly. We turned up, parked the car, got on the jet, flew to NYC. On a commercial flight there are little increments of comfort between Economy, Premium Economy, Business and First. Compared to flying private those classes of travel are all the same. No difference. It’s all cattle class. The whole aircraft to ourselves, big luxurious seats, a sofa, your own bathroom with Diptyque toiletries. Want a lay flat bed? Just tell your own crew and they make you one up.  And Alfred was free to sit where he wanted, roam around, was fed a chicken dinner off a china plate, and was even able to chase a ball along the aisle. The best part was we were truly on our way to get Alfred some help, a chance to save him.

We were arriving just in time

We didn’t need reminding of the difficulties ahead. The novelty of traveling like rock stars soon faded when mid flight he suffered a seizure. By now I am well versed in how to deal with this, and Renée is able to spot the warning signs with incredible accuracy. I  got him to the bathroom with a soft towel and comforted him just as his little body went into a full grand mal seizure. Since his diagnosis Alfie had been on strong barbiturate and steroid medication which had suppressed the seizures. Something that would only last so long. We were 10 days without a seizure and this a clear indication the efficacy of the medication was reducing, and the tumour growing. We were arriving just in time.

I LOVE this!

Carry on allowance an improvement over commercial.

ooOOoo

I am going to reproduce the contents of an email that I sent Anthony yesterday morning. It sums up how we feel about what Anthony and Renée are doing.

Dear Anthony,

I have now read very carefully your blog especially your posts of the last few weeks.

They are beautiful. In the sense of describing what you feel towards Alfred. Dogs bond to humans unconditionally. You love Alfred unconditionally.

It’s a little after 5am here in Southern Oregon. Jean and I are sitting back on top of our bed having had recently our first morning coffees. On the bed is also Oliver, an ex-rescue Labrador crossed with a Border Collie. Oliver’s bond with me is so precious. Beyond words but not beyond feelings!

I am going to write a couple of posts that essentially republish your posts about you getting Alfred to Minneapolis. But beyond that Jean and I want to wish you every success in Alfred’s treatment. Is there anything more practical that we can do to help? We are in our 70s. We are both English. We met in Mexico in December, 2007. Jean was rescuing dogs, spay or neutering them, then finding homes for them mainly in Arizona. I flew with my GSD, Pharaoh, to LAX from London, in 2008. Then down to Mexico. We came to the USA in 2010 to be married and to live with our then 16 dogs. Subsequently we came to Oregon in 2012.

I am so grateful for my son highlighting your blog.

With very best wishes,

Paul

Our very own Oliver!

SpiritDog Training.

I have relaxed my rule about posts from commercial concerns.

For the first time since July, 2009, I am presenting a guest post from a commercial business. This is how it evolved.

On the 11th February this year I received the following email:

Hi Paul,

Anne here from SpiritDog Training!

I came across Learning From Dogs while researching supplementary dog training materials and I am impressed with the articles you shared on your website.

I noticed that you are accepting guest contributions on your blog and I was wondering if our team can contribute an article for your site?

Our founder, Steffi Trott, has been featured in major publications such as Reader’s Digest, FitBark, Romper and Rachel Ray In Season so you can be assured that the content will be of high-quality.

I’ve prepared some topics here which I’m sure your readers would enjoy:

1.  How Much Exercise is Too Much?
2.  How To Teach Your Dog To Bark On Command
3.  Which Doodle is The Best Fit For Busy Families?
4.  Dog parks: Yay or nay?
5.  Fetch or keep-away? How to teach your dog to return his ball every time
6.  Nail trim horror? How to get your dog used to doggy pedicures

Please let me know if you are interested in any of these.

Looking forward to hearing from you, Paul!

Kind Regards,
Anne

I was minded to accept the invitation. I have received no income and I am not endorsing SpiritDog Training. But I thought that on balance this post should be allowed.

First, some words from Steffi Trott:

I am Steffi Trott, the dog trainer at SpiritDog Training (and hopeless dog enthusiast!). I am an energizer bunny who loves everything related to animals, the outdoors and – of course – training. I have four dogs of my own that I – of course – train every day and that participate in competitive agility as well.

I am always committed to finding the right approach for every dog and owner team – taking into consideration the individual disposition and natural strengths and weaknesses of everyone involved.

I have been teaching dog training to thousands of clients both locally and through online lessons since 2013.

I train with clients all over New Mexico and travel to teach seminars – which has taken me as far as Germany!

I studied dog training with European trainers such as multi-worldchampions in agility and European Open winners Silvia Trkman, Polona Bonac, Martina Klimesova and Anna Hinze as well as US trainers like Kim Terrill and Daisy Peel.

I have a lot of personal interest in dog cognition and behavior and keep up to date with all scientific publications on the matter.

Dog training is a very new field and just over the past couple decades trainers have gained an understanding of how much we can influence a dog’s behavior with positive, game-based methods. I firmly believe that every dog trainer needs to strive to perfect their own training skills and never stop learning and exploring.

Let me join you in finding the best possible approach for your dog!

So to the guest post submitted by Anne Handshack, the marketing associate, on behalf of Steffi.

ooOOoo

Adult dogs and playing – rethinking our expectations

By: Steffi Trott

In my work as a dog trainer, I frequently encounter the expectation that adult dogs should enjoy “playing” with other dogs. In many cases this is a misguided idea. It can cause owners to push their dogs into situations in which they are uncomfortable and may even show reactivity. Today we will look at how adult dogs interact and whether or not “playing” is a common behavior for them.

Puppies love to play

Everyone knows that puppies love to play. You can pretty much put any two puppies of any two breeds into the same space and they will run and wrestle with each other within minutes. This intense desire to play starts as soon as puppies can move around – as early as 3 or 4 weeks of age. Puppies retain the play drive until they are somewhere between 6 and 24 months old. In general, working or guard dog breeds stop to play with any other dog earlier, while companion dogs and many Doodles continue playing for longer. Some dogs completely stop any play – others get more selective in when, with whom and how they play.

Interaction yes, play no

Most friendly and socialized dogs do not dislike other dogs once they stop actively playing. They simply don’t want to race, tug and wrestle anymore. A well-mannered and social adult dog will still greet other dogs, sniff them and wander around and mark bushes with them. If your dog e.g. was friends with the neighbor’s puppy, chances are that they will both stop the wild playing at roughly the same time and switch to more laid-back interactions.

Once a dog reaches this specific point in his life at which he stops to constantly seek out play with other dogs, we need to rethink the social situations which we put him in. Have you been taking your dog to a busy park regularly? Chances are there were many other, young and playful dogs there. If they bother your dog with incessant playbowing, barking and running up to him, he may not enjoy these outings anymore and you may want to change your walking routines.

Ideally you should find canine friends for your adult dog that have the same energy level and are looking for the same interactions.

Time to quit daycare?

My clients frequently come to me with the same concern: Their puppy used to do great at his doggy daycare, but around the first birthday he stops interacting and playing as much with the dogs there. Their report cards say that the dog spent time sniffing around by himself or perhaps even got a bit snarly with the other dogs. Of course, owners are worried – is their dog regressing in his social skills?

Not at all. Again – daycares are mainly filled with young, boisterous, energetic puppies who want to play all day long. As dogs grow up, most of them reach a point at which that just does not sound like fun anymore. This is completely normal and not a reason for concern. Again, it is important to take your dog’s cues into consideration when deciding on activities for him. For a lot of adult dogs, daycare just is not so fun anymore. They might need to quit going there as the energy level is too high and they do not participate in wild play.

How much play is appropriate?

Even if you have an adult dog who does still occasionally play with other dogs, you need to monitor his play behavior. Dogs should ideally always be supervised when playing together so that owners can intervene if issues arise. 

It might be that your adult dog enjoys a bit of play, but eventually wants to just sniff by himself and be left alone. If the other dog now keeps on pestering your dog the situation might escalate. You need to always be the dog’s advocate. If your dog doesn’t want to keep playing, help him to make that happen!

Play drives can vary

While puppies always want to play with any other dog; the same adult dog might have varying interests in playing based on the day. It could depend on:

  • What he has done so far on a given day – if he has only relaxed he may be more open to playing than if he has gone on a long hike or trained a bunch
  • If “something better” is around – many adult dogs would prefer e.g. playing frisbee over playing with another dog, but if the owner puts away any toys the dog may choose to then play
  • The environment of their interaction – in a new place many adult dogs want to first sniff and explore, whereas they may be more open to playing in a known and somewhat “boring” place such as their own yard
  • Their play partner – adult dogs generally prefer to play with dogs they know rather than “doggy strangers”

The Bottom Line

Puppies love to play with any other dogs. Once they reach adulthood, it can be difficult for owners to recognize the signs that they are not so interested in this anymore. The change can be sudden or gradual. 

It is important to never push adult dogs into playful interactions. Your dog will decide himself if or when he wants to play, and you should be mindful of his preferences. Perhaps he only wants to play with a certain other dog or only for a short time. Or maybe he does not want to play at all!

You need to always be his advocate and make sure that he can be comfortable in interactions with other dog.

ooOOoo

If any of the readers of today’s article have views as to whether or not this guest post should have been allowed then please I would love to hear from you.

And another one from The Smithsonian

Our very ancient bond with dogs!

Earlier this week Dan recommended me coming off Gmail and also finding a VPN to use. I chose CyberGhost. It was the same VPN that Dan uses. So when I have drawn breath I will to go for ProtonMail as an alternative to Gmail. But the last couple of days had me puzzling why my browser, Safari, was so ineffective and thank goodness for the LiveHelp function on CyberGhost for they saved my bacon. The consequence is that I am now using Firefox as my new browser and all seems to be in order and CyberGhost is now working perfectly. The reason for all these changes is to stop the ‘big boys’ from stealing metadata. (Just one of many links on the topic!)

But again I ran out of time and energy to publish a post for yesterday.

Then I saw this on The Smithsonian website and thought another brilliant one to share with you good people. It is a long article but that doesn’t take a single thing away from it!

ooOOoo

The New Science of Our Ancient Bond With Dogs

By Jeff MacGregor; Photographs by Daniel Dorsa
SMITHSONIAN MAGAZINE | December 2020

A growing number of researchers are hot on the trail of a surprisingly profound question: What makes dogs such good companions?

https://public-media.si-cdn.com/filer/53/f7/53f76e18-b858-4897-a8b1-55be6c73952e/opener2dec2020_d09_caninecognition_copy.jpg
Walter, an 11-pound Yorkipoo study participant, resides on the Yale campus. (Daniel Dorsa)

This is a love story.

First, though, Winston is too big. The laboratory drapery can conceal his long beautiful face or his long beautiful tail, but not both. The researchers need to keep him from seeing something they don’t want him to see until they’re ready for him to see it. So during today’s brief study Winston’s tail will from time to time fly like a wagging pennant from behind a miniature theater curtain. Winston is a longhaired German shepherd.

This room at the lab is small and quiet and clean, medium-bright with ribs of sunlight on the blinds and a low, blue overhead fluorescence. Winston’s guardian is in here with him, as always, as is the three-person team of scientists. They’ll perform a short scene—a kind of behavioral psychology kabuki—then ask Winston to make a decision. A choice. Simple: either/or. In another room, more researchers watch it all play out on a video feed.

Left, Bailey, a 100 percent Yorkie, in the waiting area of the Canine Cognition Research Lab at Yale University with her owner, Judy Dermer. Right, Winston waits behind a curtain as researchers set up an experiment. The dog will observe how people yield space to one another on a tape-marked floor. The goal is to assess the dog’s response to human dominance behavior. (Daniel Dorsa)

In a minute or two, Winston will choose.

And in that moment will be a million years of memory and history, biology and psychology and ten thousand generations of evolution—his and yours and mine—of countless nights in the forest inching closer to the firelight, of competition and cooperation and eventual companionship, of devotion and loyalty and affection.

It turns out studying dogs to find out how they learn can teach you and me what it means to be human.

It’s late summer at Yale University. The laboratory occupies a pleasant white cottage on a leafy New Haven street a few steps down Science Hill from the divinity school.

I’m here to meet Laurie Santos, director of the Comparative Cognition Laboratory and the Canine Cognition Center. Santos, who radiates the kind of energy you’d expect from one of her students, is a psychologist and one of the nation’s preeminent experts on human cognition and the evolutionary processes that inform it. She received undergraduate degrees in biology and psychology and a PhD in psychology, all from Harvard. She is a TED Talks star and a media sensation for teaching the most popular course in the history of Yale, “Psychology and the Good Life,” which most folks around here refer to as the Happiness Class (and which became “The Happiness Lab” podcast). Her interest in psychology goes back to her girlhood in New Bedford, Massachusetts. She was curious about curiosity, and the nature of why we are who we are. She started out studying primates, and found that by studying them she could learn about us. Up to a point.

Santos believes that studying canines will “tell us something important about what makes humans special.” (Daniel Dorsa)

“My entry into the dog work came not from necessarily being interested in dogs per se, but in theoretical questions that came out of the primate work.” She recalls thinking of primates, “If anybody’s going to share humanlike cognition, it’s going to be them.”

But it wasn’t. Not really. We’re related, sure, but those primates haven’t spent much time interacting with us. Dogs are different. “Here’s this species that really is motivated to pay attention to what humans are doing. They really are clued in, and they really seem to have this communicative bond with us.” Over time, it occurred to her that understanding dogs, because they are not only profoundly attuned to but also shaped by people over thousands of years, would open a window on the workings of the human mind, specifically “the role that experience plays in human cognition.”

So we’re not really here to find out what dogs know, but how dogs know. Not what they think, but how they think. And more important, how that knowing and thinking reflect back on us. In fact, many studies of canine cognition here and around the academic world mimic or began as child development studies.

Understand, these studies are entirely behavioral. It’s problem-solving. Puzzle play. Selection-making. Either/or. No electrodes, no scans, no scanners. Nothing invasive. Pavlov? Doesn’t ring a bell.

* * *

Zach Silver is a PhD student in the Yale lab; we’re watching his study today with Winston. Leashed and held by his owner, Winston will be shown several repetitions of a scene performed in silence by two of the researchers. Having watched them interact, Winston will then be set loose. Which of the researchers he “chooses”—that is, walks to first—will be recorded. And over hundreds of iterations of the same scene shown to different dogs, patterns of behavior and preference will begin to emerge. Both researchers carry dog treats to reward Winston for whichever choice he makes—because you incentivize dogs the same way you incentivize sportswriters or local politicians, with free food, but the dogs require much smaller portions.

In some studies the researchers/actors might play out brief demonstrations of cooperation and non-cooperation, or dominance and submission. Imagine a dog is given a choice between someone who shares and someone who doesn’t. Between a helper and a hinderer. The experiment leader requests a clipboard. The helper hands it over cheerfully. The hinderer refuses. Having watched a scene in which one researcher shares a resource and another does not, who will the dog choose?

The question is tangled up with our own human prejudices and preconceptions, and it’s never quite as simple as it looks. Helping, Silver says, is very social behavior, which we tend to think dogs should value. “When you think about dogs’ evolutionary history, being able to seek out who is prosocial, helpful, that could have been very important, essential for survival.” On the other hand, a dog might choose for “selfishness” or for “dominance” or for “aggression” in a way that makes sense to him without the complicating lens of a human moral imperative. “There could be some value to [the dog] affiliating with someone who is stockpiling resources, holding onto things, maybe not sharing. If you’re in that person’s camp, maybe there’s just more to go around.” Or in certain confrontational scenarios, a dog may read dominance in a researcher merely being deferred to by another researcher. Or a dog may just choose the fastest route to the most food.

Nutmeg participates in a study evaluating whether dogs prefer people who help others over those who don’t. One seated actor has already “helped” by handing over a clipboard; one has “hindered” by moving it away. Bottom left: Nutmeg seeks out the “helper.” (Daniel Dorsa)

What Silver is trying to tease out with today’s experiment is the most elusive thing of all: intention.

“I think intention may play a large role in dogs’ evaluation of others’ behavior,” says Silver. “We may be learning more about how the dog mind works or how the nonhuman mind works broadly. That’s one of the really exciting places we are moving in this field, is to understand the small cognitive building blocks that might contribute to valuations. My work in particular is focused on seeing if domestic dogs share some of these abilities with us.”

As promising as the field is, in some ways it seems that dog nature, like human nature, is infinitely complex. Months later, in a scientific paper, Silver and others will point out that “humans evaluate other agents’ behavior on a variety of different dimensions, including morally, from a very early age” and that “given the ubiquity of dog-human social interactions, it is possible that dogs display humanlike social evaluation tendencies.” Turns out that a dog’s experience seems important. “Trained agility dogs approached a prosocial actor significantly more often than an antisocial actor, while untrained pet dogs showed no preference for either actor,” the researchers found. “These differences across dogs with different training histories suggest that while dogs may demonstrate preferences for prosocial others in some contexts, their social evaluation abilities are less flexible and less robust compared to those of humans.”

Santos explained, “Zach’s work is beginning to give us some insight into the fact that dogs can categorize human actions, but they require certain kinds of training to do so. His work raises some new questions about how experience shapes canine cognition.”

It’s important to create experiments measuring the dog’s actual behaviors rather than our philosophical or social expectation of those behaviors. Some of the studies are much simpler, and don’t try to tease out how dogs perceive the world and make decisions to move through it. Rather than trying to figure out if a dog knows right from wrong, these puzzles ask whether the dog knows right from left.

An example of which might be showing the subject dog two cups. The cup with the treat is positioned to her left, near the door. Do this three times. Now, reversing her position in the room, set her loose. Does she head for the cup near the door, now on her right? Or does she go left again? Does she orient things in the world based on landmarks? Or based on her own location in the world? It’s a simple experimental premise measuring a complex thing: spatial functioning.

In tests like these, you’ll often see the dog look back at her owner, or guardian, for a tip, a hint, a clue. Which is why the guardians are all made to wear very dark sunglasses and told to keep still.

In some cases, the dog fails to make any choice at all. Which is disappointing to the researchers, but seems to have no impact on the dog—who will still be hugged and praised and tummy-rubbed on the way out the door.

Left, the waiting area of the Canine Cognition Research Lab. Right, the tape-marked floor in the lab. (Daniel Dorsa)

Every dog and every guardian here is a volunteer. They come from New Haven or drive in from nearby Connecticut towns for an appointment at roughly 45-minute intervals. They sign up on the lab’s website. Some dogs and guardians return again and again because they enjoy it so much.

It’s confusing to see the sign-up sheet without knowing the dog names from the people names.

Winston’s owner, human Millie, says, “The minute I say ‘We’re going to Yale,’ Winston perks up and we’re in the car. He loves it and they’re so good to him; he gets all the attention.”

And dog Millie’s owner, Margo, says, “At one point at the end they came up with this parchment. You open it up and it says that she’s been inducted into Scruff and Bones, with all the rights and privileges thereof.”

The dogs are awarded fancy Yale dogtorates and are treated like psych department superstars. Which they are. Without them, this relatively new field of study couldn’t exist.

All the results of which will eventually be synthesized, not only by Santos, but by researchers the world over into a more complete map of human consciousness, and a better, more comprehensive Theory of Mind. I asked Santos about that, and any big breakthrough moments she’s experienced so far. “Our closest primary relatives—primates—are not closest to us in terms of how we use social information. It might be dogs,” she says. “Dogs are paying attention to humans.”

Winston, a 100-pound longhaired German shepherd, is a veteran participant in a series of research projects at Yale, including studies constructed to assess canine perceptions of human dominance behavior. (Daniel Dorsa)

Santos also thinks about the potential applications of canine cognition research. “More and more, we need to figure out how to train dogs to do certain kinds of things,” she says. “There are dogs in the military, these are service dogs. As our boomers are getting older, we’re going to be faced with more and more folks who have disabilities, who have loneliness, and so on. Understanding how dogs think can help us do that kind of training.”

In that sense, dogs may come to play an even larger role in our daily lives. Americans spent nearly $100 billion on their pets in 2019, maybe half of which was spent on dogs. The rest was embezzled, then gambled away—by cats.

From cave painting to The Odyssey to The Call of the Wild, the dog is inescapable in human art and culture. Anubis or Argos, Bau or Xolotl, Rin Tin Tin or Marmaduke, from the religious to the secular, Cerberus to Snoopy, from the Egyptians and the Sumerians and the Aztecs to the canine stunt coordinators of Hollywood, the dog is everywhere with us, in us and around us. As a symbol of courage or loyalty, as metaphor and avatar, as a bad dog, mad dog, “release the hounds” evil, or as a screenwriter’s shorthand for goodness, the dog is tightly woven into our stories.

Maybe the most interesting recent change, to take the movie dog as an example, is the metaphysical upgrade from Old Yeller to A Dog’s Purpose and its sequel, A Dog’s Journey. In the first case, the hero dog sacrifices himself for the family, and ascends to his rest, replaced on the family ranch by a pup he sired. In the latter two, the same dog soul returns and returns and returns, voiced by actor Josh Gad, reincarnating and accounting his lives until he reunites with his original owner. Sort of a Western spin on karma and the effort to perfect an everlasting self.

Millie, also a Yale study subject, is a husky-Catahoula Leopard dog-terrier mix. “We need to test dogs from all kinds of backgrounds, breeds and training levels,” Santos says. (Daniel Dorsa)

But even that kind of cultural shift pales compared with the dog’s journey in the real world. Until about a century ago, in a more agrarian time, the average dog was a fixture of the American barnyard. An affectionate and devoted farmhand, sure, herder of sheep, hunting partner or badger hound, keeper of the night watch, but not much different from a cow, a horse or a mule in terms of its utility and its relationship to the family.

By the middle of the 20th century, as we urbanized and suburbanized, the dog moved too—from the back forty to the backyard.

Then, in the 1960s, the great leap—from the doghouse onto the bedspread, thanks to flea collars. With reliable pest control, the dog moves into the house. Your dog is no longer an outdoor adjunct to the family, but a full member in good standing.

There was a book on the table in the waiting room at Yale. The Genius of Dogs, by Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods. Yiyun Huang, the lab manager of the Canine Cognition Center at the time, handed it to me. “You should read this,” she said.

So I did.

Then I flew to Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.

* * *

Not long after I stepped off the plane I walked straight into a room full of puppies.

The Duke Canine Cognition Center is the brain-child of an evolutionary anthropologist named Brian Hare. His CV runs from Harvard to the Max Planck Institute and back. He is a global leader in the study of dogs and their relationships to us and to each other and to the world around them. He started years ago by studying his own dog in the family garage. Now he’s a regular on best-seller lists.

Like Santos, he’s most interested in the ways dogs inform us about ourselves. “Nobody understands why we’re working with dogs to understand human nature—until we start talking about it,” he says. “Laugh if you want, but dogs are everywhere humans are, and they’re absolutely killing it evolutionarily. I love wolves, but the truth is they’re really in trouble”—as our lethal antipathy to them bears out. “So whatever evolutionarily led to dogs, and I think we have a good idea of that, boy, they made a good decision.”

Ultimately, Hare says, what he’s studying is trust. How is it that dogs form a bond with a new person? How do social creatures form bonds with one another? Developmental disorders in people may be related to problems in forming bonds—so, from a scientific perspective, dogs can be a model of social bonding.

At Duke, Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods (with golden-Labrador retriever mix puppies Westley, left, and Arthur) assess canine cognitive skills using 25 different games. (Jeremy M. Lange (Dogs – Canine Companions for Independence))

Hare works with research scientist Vanessa Woods, also his wife and co-author. It was their idea to start a puppy kindergarten here. The golden and Labrador retriever-mix puppies are all 10 weeks old or so when they arrive, and will be studied at the same time they’re training to become service dogs for the nonprofit partner Canine Companions for Independence. The whole thing is part of a National Institutes of Health study: Better understanding of canine cognition means better training for service dogs.

Because dogs are so smart—and so trainable— there’s a whole range of assistance services they can be taught. There are dogs who help people with autism, Woods tells me. “Dogs for PTSD, because they can go in and spot-check a room. They can turn the lights on. They can, if someone’s having really bad nightmares, embrace them so just to ground them. They can detect low blood sugar, alert for seizures, become hearing dogs so they can alert their owner if someone’s at the door, or if the telephone’s ringing.”

Canines demonstrate a remarkable versatility. “A whole range of incredibly flexible, cognitive tasks,” she says, “that these dogs do that you just can’t get a machine to do. You can get a machine to answer your phone—but you can’t get a machine to answer your phone, go do your laundry, hand you your credit card, and find your keys when you don’t know where they are.” Woods and I are on the way out of the main puppy office downstairs, where the staff and student volunteers gather to relax and rub puppy tummies between studies.

It was in their book that I first encountered the idea that, over thousands of years, evolution selected and sharpened in dogs the traits most likely to succeed in harmony with humans. Wild canids that were affable, nonaggressive, less threatening were able to draw nearer to human communities. They thrived on scraps, on what we threw away. Those dogs were ever so slightly more successful at survival and reproduction. They had access to better, more reliable food and shelter. They survived better with us than without us. We helped each other hunt and move from place to place in search of resources. Kept each other warm. Eventually it becomes a reciprocity not only of efficiency, but of cooperation, even affection. Given enough time, and the right species, evolution selects for what we might call goodness. This is the premise of Hare and Woods’ new book, Survival of the Friendliest.

If that strikes you as too philosophical, over-romantic and scientifically spongy, there’s biochemistry at work here too. Woods explained it while we took some puppies for a walk around the pond just down the hill from the lab. “So, did you see that study that dogs hijack the oxytocin loop?”

I admitted I had not.

Oxytocin is a hormone produced in the hypothalamus and released by the pituitary gland. It plays an important role in human bonding and social interaction, and makes us feel good about everything from empathy to orgasm. It is sometimes referred to as the “love hormone.”

Woods starts me out with the underpinnings of these kinds of studies—on human infants. “Human babies are so helpless,” she says. “You leave them alone for ten minutes and they can literally die. They keep you up all night, they take a lot of energy and resources. And so, how are they going to sort of convince you to take care of them?”

What infants can do, she says, “is they can look at you.”

And so this starts an oxytocin loop where the baby looks at you and your oxytocin goes up, and you look at the baby and the baby’s oxytocin goes up. One of the things oxytocin does is elicit caregiving toward someone you see as part of your group.

Dogs, it turns out, have hijacked that process as well. “When a dog is looking at me,” Woods says, “his oxytocin is going up and my oxytocin is going up.” Have you ever had a moment, she asks, when your dog looks at you, and you just don’t know what the dog wants? The dog has already been for a walk, has already been fed.

“Sure,” I responded.

“It’s just kind of like they’re trying to hug you with their eyes,” she says.

Canine eyebrow muscles, it turns out, may have evolved to reveal more of the sclera, the whites of the eyes. Humans share this trait. “Our great ape relatives hide their eyes,” Woods says. “They don’t want you to know where they’re looking, because they have a lot more competition. But humans evolved to be superfriendly, and the sclera is part of that.”

So, it’s eye muscles and hormones, not just sentiment.

In the lab here at Duke, I see puppies and researchers work through a series of training and problem-solving scenarios. For example, the puppy is shown a treat from across the room, but must remain stationary until called forward by the researcher.

“Puppy look. Puppy look.”

Puppy looks.

“Puppy stay.”

Puppy stays.

“Puppy fetch.”

Puppy wobbles forward on giant paws to politely nip the tiny treat and to be effusively praised and petted. Good puppy!

The problem-solving begins when a plexiglass shield is placed between the puppy and the treat.

“Puppy look.”

Puppy does so.

“Puppy fetch.”

Puppy wobbles forward, bonks snout on plexiglass. Puppy, vexed, tries again. How fast the puppy susses out a new route to the food is a good indication of patience and diligence and capacity for learning. Over time the plexiglass shields become more complicated and the puppies need to formulate more complex routes and solutions. As a practical matter, the sooner you can find out which of these candidate puppies is the best learner, the most adaptive, the best suited to the training—and which is not—the better. Early study of these dogs is a breakthrough efficiency in training.

At Duke, 11-week-old retriever Wisdom awaits the next phase in a challenge known as the Unsolvable Task. Wisdom’s response to a container holding a treat or toy, sometimes immovably glued to a panel, will offer clues to his persistence. (Jeremy M. Lange)

I asked Hare where all this leads. “I’m very excited about this area of how we view animals informs how we view each other. Can we harness that? Very, very positive. We’re working already on ideas for interventions and experiments.”

Second, Hare says, much of their work has focused on “how to raise dogs.” He adds, “I could replace dogs with kids.” Thus the implications are global: study puppies, advance your understanding of how to nurture and raise children.

“There’s nice evidence that we can immunize ourselves from some of the worst of our human nature,” Hare recently told the American Psychological Association in an interview, “and it’s similar to how we make sure that dogs are not aggressive to one another: We socialize them. We want puppies to see the world, experience different dogs and different situations. By doing that for them when they’re young, they aren’t threatened by those things. Similarly, there is good evidence that you can immunize people from dehumanizing other groups just through contact between those groups, as long as that contact results in friendship.”

Evolutionary processes buzz and sputter all around us every moment. Selection never sleeps. In fact, Hare contributed to a new paper released this year on how rapidly coyote populations adapt to humans in urban and suburban settings. “How animal populations adapt to human-modified landscapes is central to understanding modern behavioural evolution and improving wildlife management. Coyotes (Canis latrans) have adapted to human activities and thrive in both rural and urban areas. Bolder coyotes showing reduced fear of humans and their artefacts may have an advantage in urban environments.”

The struggle between the natural world and the made world is everywhere constant, and not all possible outcomes lead to friendship. Just ask those endangered wolves—if you can find one.

The history of which perhaps seems distant from the babies and the students and these puppies. But to volunteer for this program is to make a decision for extra-credit joy. This is evident toward the end of my day in Durham. Out on the lab’s playground where the students, puppy and undergraduate alike, roll and wrestle and woof and slobber under that Carolina blue sky.

* * *

In rainy New York City, I spent an afternoon with Alexandra Horowitz, founder and director of the Horowitz Dog Cognition Lab at Barnard College, and the best-selling author of books including Being a Dog, Inside of a Dog, and Our Dogs, Ourselves. She holds a doctorate in cognitive science, and is one of the pioneers of canine studies.

It is her belief that we started studying dogs only after all these years because they’ve been studying us.

She acknowledges that other researchers in the field have their own point of view. “The big theme is, What do dogs tell us about ourselves?” Horowitz says. “I am a little less interested in that.” She is more interested in the counter question: What do cognition studies tell us about dogs?

Say you get a dog, Horowitz suggests. “And a week into living with a dog, you’re saying ‘He knows this.’ Or ‘She is holding a grudge’ or, ‘He likes this.’ We just barely met him, but we’re saying things that we already know about him—where we wouldn’t about the squirrel outside.”

Horowitz has investigated what prompts us to make such attributions. For instance, she led a much-publicized 2009 study of the “guilty look.”

“Anthropomorphisms are regularly used by owners in describing their dogs,” Horowitz and co-authors write. “Of interest is whether attributions of understanding and emotions to dogs are sound, or are unwarranted applications of human psychological terms to nonhumans. One attribution commonly made to dogs is that the ‘guilty look’ shows that dogs feel guilt at doing a disallowed action.” In the study, the researchers observed and video-recorded a series of 14 dogs interacting with their guardians in the lab. Put a treat in a room. Tell the dog not to eat it. The owner leaves the room. Dog eats treat. Owner returns. Does the dog have a “guilty look”? Sometimes yes, sometimes no, but the outcome, it turns out, was generally related to the owner’s reaction—whether the dog was scolded, for instance. Conclusion: “These results indicate that a better description of the so-called guilty look is that it is a response to owner cues, rather than that it shows an appreciation of a misdeed.”

She has also focused on a real gap in the field, a need to investigate the perceptual world of the dog, in particular, olfaction. What she calls “nosework.” She asks what it might be like “to be an olfactory creature, and how they can smell identity or smell quantity or smell time, potentially. I am always interested in the question: What is the smell angle here?”

Earlier this year, for instance, her group published a study, “Discrimination of Person Odor by Owned Domestic Dogs,” which “investigated whether owned dogs spontaneously (without training) distinguished their owner’s odor from a stranger’s odor.” Their main finding: Dogs were able to distinguish between the scent of a T-shirt that had been worn overnight by a stranger and a T-shirt that had been worn overnight by their owner, without the owner present. The result “begins to answer the question of how dogs recognize and represent humans, including their owners.”

It’s widely known and understood that dogs outsmell us, paws down. Humans have about six million olfactory receptors. Dogs as many as 300 million. We sniff indifferently and infrequently. Dogs, however, sniff constantly, five or ten times a second, and map their whole world that way. In fact, in a recent scientific journal article, Horowitz makes plain that olfaction is too rarely accounted for in canine cognition studies and is a significant factor that needs to be accorded much greater priority.

As I walked outside into the steady city drizzle, I thought back to Yale and to Winston, in his parallel universe of smell, making his way out of the lab, sniffing every hand and every shoe as we piled on our praise. Our worlds overlap, but aren’t the same. And as Winston fanned the air with his tail, ready to get back in the car for home, my hand light on his flank, I asked him the great unanswerable, the final question at the heart of every religious system and philosophical inquiry in the history of humanity.

“Who’s a good boy?”

* * *

So I sat down again with Laurie Santos. New Haven and Science Hill and the little white laboratory were all quiet under a late summer sun.

I wanted to explore an idea from Hare’s book, which is how evolution could select for sociability, friendliness, “goodness.” Over the generations, the thinking goes, eventually we get more affable, willing dogs—but we also get smarter dogs. Because affability, unbeknownst to anybody, also selects for intelligence. I saw in that a cause for human optimism.

“I think we’ve shaped this creature in our image and likeness in a lot of ways,” Santos tells me. “And the creature that’s come out is an incredibly loving, cooperative, probably smart relative to some other ancestral canid species. The story is, we’ve built this species that has a lot of us in them—and the parts of us that are pretty good, which is why we want to hang out with them so much. We’ve created a species that wants to bond with us and does so really successfully.”

Like Vanessa Woods and Brian Hare, she returns to the subject of human infants.

Millie, a mixed-breed dog, in the waiting area of the Canine Cognition Research Lab with her owner Jim Tucker. (Daniel Dorsa)

“What makes humans unique relative to primates?” she asks. “The fact that babies are looking into your eyes, they really want to share information with you. Not stuff that they want, it’s just simply this motivation to share. And that emerges innately. It’s the sign that you have a neurotypical baby. It’s a fundamental thread through the entire life course. The urge to teach and even to share on social media and so on. It makes experiences better over time when you’re sharing them with someone else. We’ve built another creature that can do this with us, which is kind of cool.”

* * *

I think of Winston more and more these strange days. I picture his long elegant face and his long comic book tail. His calm. His unflappable enthusiasm for problem-solving. His reasonability. Statesmanlike. I daydream often of those puppies, too. Is there anything in our shared history more soothing than a roomful of puppies?

There is not.

It turns out that by knowing the dog, we know ourselves. The dog is a mirror.

Logic; knowledge; problem-solving; intentionality; we can often describe the mechanics of how we think, of how we arrived at an answer. We talk easily about how we learn and how we teach. We can even describe it in others.

Many of us—maybe most of us—don’t have the words to describe how we feel. I know I don’t. In all of this, in all the welter of the world and all the things in it, who understands my sadness? Who can parse my joy? Who can reckon my fear or measure my worry? But the dog, any dog—especially your dog—the dog is a certainty in uncertain times, a constant, like gravity or the speed of light.

Because there is something more profound in this than even science has language for, something more powerful and universal. Because at the end of every study, at the end of every day, what the dog really chooses is us.

So. As I said. A love story.

ooOOoo

About the Author: Daniel Dorsa is a photographer based in New York City, whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker and Time, among others. Read more articles from Daniel Dorsa
Jeff MacGregor About the Author: Jeff MacGregor is the award-winning Writer-at-Large for Smithsonian. He has written for the New York Times, Sports Illustrated, Esquire, and many others, and is the author of the acclaimed book Sunday Money. Photo by Olya Evanitsky. Read more articles from Jeff MacGregor and

ooOOoo

This is a superb article and one that is worthy of a decent read. It has a ton of information. It is also beautifully written. To be honest I read this aloud to Jeannie yesterday afternoon and I want to follow-up on some of the links in the article to see if there are other posts that may be shared.

So settle yourself down and read it thoroughly. For dogs are the most perfect creatures! Plus, the photographs are pretty neat!

Finally, just a personal note to say that we are so priveleged to have six dogs around us here at home. Gradually the number has come down from the sixteen we brought into Arizona from Mexico when we moved back in 2010. We so love them!

Back to the gut!

Once again, an article from The Conversation.

I make no apologies for republishing this further article about the health of one’s gut. Apart from the relevance at this time in terms of defeating Covid-19 the health of one’s digestive system is key and, essentially, the digestive system is the gut.

Read it and if you need to adjust your diet, DO IT!

ooOOoo

A healthy microbiome builds a strong immune system that could help defeat COVID-19

By

Assistant Professor of Microbiology and Physiological Systems, University of Massachusetts Medical School

The microbes living in the gut are key to good health. Dr_Microbe/iStock/Getty Images Plus Ana Maldonado-Contreras, University of Massachusetts Medical School

Takeaways

  • Your gut is home to trillions of bacteria that are vital for keeping you healthy.
  • Some of these microbes help to regulate the immune system.
  • New research, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, shows the presence of certain bacteria in the gut may reveal which people are more vulnerable to a more severe case of COVID-19.

You may not know it, but you have an army of microbes living inside of you that are essential for fighting off threats, including the virus that causes COVID-19.

In the past two decades scientists have learned our bodies are home to more bacterial cells than human ones. This community of bacteria that lives in and on us – called the microbiome – resembles a company, with each microbe species performing specialized jobs but all working to keep us healthy. In the gut, the bacteria balance the immune response against pathogens. These bacteria ensure the immune response is effective but not so violent that it causes collateral damage to the host.

Bacteria in our guts can elicit an effective immune response against viruses that not only infect the gut, such as norovirus and rotavirus, but also those infecting the lungs, such as the flu virus. The beneficial gut microbes do this by ordering specialized immune cells to produce potent antiviral proteins that ultimately eliminate viral infections. And the body of a person lacking these beneficial gut bacteria won’t have as strong an immune response to invading viruses. As a result, infections might go unchecked, taking a toll on health.

I am a microbiologist fascinated by the ways bacteria shape human health. An important focus of my research is figuring out how the beneficial bacteria populating our guts combat disease and infection. My most recent work focuses on the link between a particular microbe and the severity of COVID-19 in patients. My ultimate goal is to figure out out how to enhance the gut microbiome with diet to evoke a strong immune response – for not just SARS-CoV-2 but all pathogens.

Good bacteria help the immune system ward off harmful microbes. chombosan/iStock/Getty Images Plus

How do resident bacteria keep you healthy?

Our immune defense is part of a complex biological response against harmful pathogens, such as viruses or bacteria. However, because our bodies are inhabited by trillions of mostly beneficial bacteria, virus and fungi, activation of our immune response is tightly regulated to distinguish between harmful and helpful microbes.

Our bacteria are spectacular companions diligently helping prime our immune system defenses to combat infections. A seminal study found that mice treated with antibiotics that eliminate bacteria in the gut exhibited an impaired immune response. These animals had low counts of virus-fighting white blood cells, weak antibody responses and poor production of a protein that is vital for combating viral infection and modulating the immune response.

In another study, mice were fed Lactobacillus bacteria, commonly used as probiotic in fermented food. These microbes reduced the severity of influenza infection. The Lactobacillus-treated mice did not lose weight and had only mild lung damage compared with untreated mice. Similarly, others have found that treatment of mice with Lactobacillus protects against different subtypes of influenza virus and human respiratory syncytial virus – the major cause of viral bronchiolitis and pneumonia in children.

Fermented foods like kimchi, red beets, apple cider vinegar, coconut milk yogurt, cucumber pickles and sauerkraut can help provide beneficial bacteria. marekuliasz/iStock/Getty Images Plus
Chronic disease and microbes

Patients with chronic illnesses including Type 2 diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease exhibit a hyperactive immune system that fails to recognize a harmless stimulus and is linked to an altered gut microbiome.

In these chronic diseases, the gut microbiome lacks bacteria that activate immune cells that block the response against harmless bacteria in our guts. Such alteration of the gut microbiome is also observed in babies delivered by cesarean section, individuals consuming a poor diet and the elderly.

In the U.S., 117 million individuals – about half the adult population – suffer from Type 2 diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease or a combination of them. That suggests that half of American adults carry a faulty microbiome army.

Research in my laboratory focuses on identifying gut bacteria that are critical for creating a balanced immune system, which fights life-threatening bacterial and viral infections, while tolerating the beneficial bacteria in and on us.

Given that diet affects the diversity of bacteria in the gut, my lab studies show how diet can be used as a therapy for chronic diseases. Using different foods, people can shift their gut microbiome to one that boosts a healthy immune response.

A fraction of patients infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 disease, develop severe complications that require hospitalization in intensive care units. What do many of those patients have in common? Old age and chronic diet-related diseases like obesity, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Black and Latinx people are disproportionately affected by obesity, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease, all of which are linked to poor nutrition. Thus, it is not a coincidence that these groups have suffered more deaths from COVID-19 compared with whites. This is the case not only in the U.S. but also in Britain.

Minority communities continue to bear the brunt of the pandemic. Blake Nissen for The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Discovering microbes that predict COVID-19 severity

The COVID-19 pandemic has inspired me to shift my research and explore the role of the gut microbiome in the overly aggressive immune response against SARS-CoV-2 infection.

My colleagues and I have hypothesized that critically ill SARS-CoV-2 patients with conditions like obesity, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease exhibit an altered gut microbiome that aggravates acute respiratory distress syndrome.

Acute respiratory distress syndrome, a life-threatening lung injury, in SARS-CoV-2 patients is thought to develop from a fatal overreaction of the immune response called a cytokine storm that causes an uncontrolled flood of immune cells into the lungs. In these patients, their own uncontrolled inflammatory immune response, rather than the virus itself, causes the severe lung injury and multiorgan failures that lead to death.

Several studies described in one recent review have identified an altered gut microbiome in patients with COVID-19. However, identification of specific bacteria within the microbiome that could predict COVID-19 severity is lacking.

To address this question, my colleagues and I recruited COVID-19 hospitalized patients with severe and moderate symptoms. We collected stool and saliva samples to determine whether bacteria within the gut and oral microbiome could predict COVID-19 severity. The identification of microbiome markers that can predict the clinical outcomes of COVID-19 disease is key to help prioritize patients needing urgent treatment.

We demonstrated, in a paper which has not yet been peer reviewed, that the composition of the gut microbiome is the strongest predictor of COVID-19 severity compared to patient’s clinical characteristics commonly used to do so. Specifically, we identified that the presence of a bacterium in the stool – called Enterococcus faecalis– was a robust predictor of COVID-19 severity. Not surprisingly, Enterococcus faecalis has been associated with chronic inflammation.

Enterococcus faecalis collected from feces can be grown outside of the body in clinical laboratories. Thus, an E. faecalis test might be a cost-effective, rapid and relatively easy way to identify patients who are likely to require more supportive care and therapeutic interventions to improve their chances of survival.

But it is not yet clear from our research what is the contribution of the altered microbiome in the immune response to SARS-CoV-2 infection. A recent study has shown that SARS-CoV-2 infection triggers an imbalance in immune cells called T regulatory cells that are critical to immune balance.

Bacteria from the gut microbiome are responsible for the proper activation of those T-regulatory cells. Thus, researchers like me need to take repeated patient stool, saliva and blood samples over a longer time frame to learn how the altered microbiome observed in COVID-19 patients can modulate COVID-19 disease severity, perhaps by altering the development of the T-regulatory cells.

As a Latina scientist investigating interactions between diet, microbiome and immunity, I must stress the importance of better policies to improve access to healthy foods, which lead to a healthier microbiome. It is also important to design culturally sensitive dietary interventions for Black and Latinx communities. While a good-quality diet might not prevent SARS-CoV-2 infection, it can treat the underlying conditions related to its severity.

[Get our best science, health and technology stories. Sign up for The Conversation’s science newsletter.]The Conversation

Ana Maldonado-Contreras, Assistant Professor of Microbiology and Physiological Systems, University of Massachusetts Medical School

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

ooOOoo

Please note that obesity is regarded as a chronic illness.

Let me reprint a paragraph from the article:

In the U.S., 117 million individuals – about half the adult population – suffer from Type 2 diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease or a combination of them. That suggests that half of American adults carry a faulty microbiome army.

This is not funny. Good eating, typically the Mediterranean diet, is not difficult.

Link up to the excellent blog site One Regular Guy Writing about Food, Exercise and Living Past 100. Tony is a master at communicating good common sense!

If you are a regular red-meat eater then give yourself a break for two or three days; what have you got to lose!

And if you are the ‘wrong’ side of, say, 50 then having a faulty microbiome will be having an increasingly negative effect on you.

Remember:

Diet and Exercise are crucial!

The Secret Sauce to a Long, Sharp Life

A partial review of Sanjay Gupta’s book.

With credit to Amazon books.

There is so much to speak about in this book, and anyone the ‘wrong’ side of 50 should consider purchasing the book. Really! I include the link to the book on Amazon. (And nothing in it for me I have to say.)

I want to concentrate on two items of note.

The first is that given the right diet, primarily a Mediterranean plant-based diet, and plenty of exercise, it is possible for the brain to rejuvenate new brain cells. Yes, that’s correct! New brain cells!

The second item of note is over on page 194. Let me quote:

Dr. Waldinger’s findings are attractive because they debunk commonly held myths about health and happiness. The findings are based on a comprehensive review of the participants’ lives and biology.

and two sentences later:

The lesson learned is that health and happiness are not about wealth, fame, or working harder. They are about good relationships.

Dr. Robert Waldinger is a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. His TED talk, “What Makes a Good Life?” has been viewed more than 36 million times. The link to the TED Talk is here.

What keeps us happy and healthy as we go through life? If you think it’s fame and money, you’re not alone – but, according to psychiatrist Robert Waldinger, you’re mistaken. As the director of a 75-year-old study on adult development, Waldinger has unprecedented access to data on true happiness and satisfaction. In this talk, he shares three important lessons learned from the study as well as some practical, old-as-the-hills wisdom on how to build a fulfilling, long life.

On page 198 among the list of tips about staying engaged is to consider adopting a pet! Yes siree!

Now I am 76 and have had 14 years of pure happiness. Because in 2007 I met Jean, and all her dogs. We fell in love!

We came up to Payson, Arizona in 2010 and were married. In 2012 we came up to our rural acres in Southern Oregon.

Jeannie, Sweeny and Cleo. Taken in April, 2012.

It is 2021 and there is no doubt that we are both ageing but we are still very much in love.

We are very happy and that is because as luck would have it we are also each other’s best friend!

The Secret Sauce to a Long, Sharp Life!

Dan and Lexi

Just a reminder of how we treasure our dogs.

I was speaking two days ago to my friend Dan of many, many years, and also my best man when Jeannie and I were married in 2010, and we were talking of our dogs. In the conversation Dan said this:

You know that Lexi and I are always together for practically twenty-four hours a day!

Dan went on to say that Lexi followed him everywhere and that, literally, they were together for ninety-nine percent of their time.

I asked Dan to send me a photograph of the two of them. Here it is!

Beautiful beyond words.

(And call by tomorrow for some special words about close friends.)

Being healthy in your later years.

This is a key article!

Now this has nothing to do with dogs. Well not directly but the longer we humans live the longer we can have dogs as pets.

I was having an email ‘conversation’ with Jon over in England and he pointed me to Professor Tim Spector. Prof. Spector writes on his website that he:

Tim Spector is a Professor of Genetic Epidemiology and Director of the TwinsUK Registry at Kings College, London and has recently been elected to the prestigious Fellowship of the Academy of Medical Sciences. He trained originally in rheumatology and epidemiology.

In 1992 he moved into genetic epidemiology and founded the UK Twins Registry, of 13,000 twins, which is the richest collection of genotypic and phenotypic information worldwide. He is past President of the International Society of Twin Studies, directs the European Twin Registry Consortium (Discotwin) and collaborates with over 120 centres worldwide.

He has demonstrated the genetic basis of a wide range of common complex traits, many previously thought to be mainly due to ageing and environment. Through genetic association studies (GWAS), his group have found over 500 novel gene loci in over 50 disease areas. He has published over 800 research articles and is ranked as being in the top 1% of the world’s most cited scientists by Thomson-Reuters.

He held a prestigious European Research Council senior investigator award in epigenetics and is a NIHR Senior Investigator. His current work focuses on omics and the microbiome and directs the crowdfunded British Gut microbiome project.

Together with an international team of leading scientists including researchers from King’s College London, Massachusetts General Hospital, Tufts University, Stanford University and nutritional science company ZOE he  is conducting the largest scientific nutrition research project, showing that individual responses to the same foods are unique, even between identical twins.

You can find more on https://joinzoe.com/ He is a prolific writer with several popular science books and a regular blog, focusing on genetics, epigenetics and most recently microbiome and diet (The Diet Myth). He is in demand as a public speaker and features regularly in the media.

That is quite a CV!

Then I came across an essay on The Conversation website about being healthier in one’s old age.

Read it!

ooOOoo

Keen to be healthier in old age? Tend your inner garden

By

Clinical Senior Lecturer, King’s College London

Professor of Genetic Epidemiology, King’s College London

January 29, 2016

Grub’s up. Lunch by Shutterstock

The world’s oldest man, Yasutaro Koide recently died at the age of 112. Commentators as usual, focused on his reported “secret to longevity”: not smoking, drinking or overdoing it. No surprises there. But speculation on the basis of one individual is not necessarily the most helpful way of addressing this human quest for the Philosopher’s Stone.

The “very old” do spark our interest – but is our search for a secret to longevity actually misguided? Wouldn’t you rather live healthier than live longer in poor health? Surely, what we really want to know is how do we live well in old age.

Clearly as scientists we try to illuminate these questions using populations of people not just odd individuals. Many previous attempts have approached this question by looking for differences between young and old people, but this approach is often biased by the many social and cultural developments that happen between generations, including diet changes. Time itself should not be the focus – at least, in part, because time is one thing we are unlikely to be able to stop.

Yasutaro Koide made 112. Kyodo/Reuters

The real question behind our interest in people who survive into old age is how some manage to stay robust and fit while others become debilitated and dependent. To this end, recent scientific interest has turned to investigating the predictors of frailty within populations of roughly the same age. Frailty is a measure of how physically and mentally healthy an individual is. Studies show frailer older adults have an increased levels of low grade inflammation – so-called “inflammaging”.

New research published in Genome Medicine by Matt Jackson, from our group at King’s College London, investigated this question in an unlikely place – poo. Recent evidence indicates that our immune and inflammatory systems are trained and educated in our gut, through key interactions with gut bacteria. So we asked if changes in our gut bacteria could be part of the process of inflammation driving frailty.

Our recent work found that the frailer an individual, the lower the diversity of gut bacteria they have. We looked at stool samples from more than 700 healthy British twins and found that a group of bacteria belonging to the species with a tricky and slightly unpleasant name, Faecalibacterium prausnitzii, were found in higher amounts in the healthier twins. This is a particularly interesting microbe as it has been linked with good health in many other diseases such as inflammatory bowel disease and is believed to reduce inflammation of the gut. Could this bug help protect against frailty?

Putting in the research. Paper by Shutterstock

There were other microbes seen in increased amounts within the frailer twins. One was Eubacterium dolichum, which has been seen to increase in unhealthy Western diets. We found the same picture when comparing frailer, more elderly, individuals from the ELDERMET study, by the University of Cork. This suggests that dietary changes might be an easy way to encourage healthy ageing.

Our study does not yet clarify whether the changes to the gut bacteria are a cause of poor ageing itself or are just a consequence of frailty – longitudinal studies that follow people over several years will be needed to sort this out. But these results are exciting for researchers in the ageing field and suggest that if you want to age well you should perhaps do fewer crosswords and spend more time looking after your microbial garden, for example by eating plenty of plant fibre, for example in a Mediterranean-type diet.

ooOOoo

Well this essay was published nearly 5 years ago and one wonders if more information has come to light.

Certainly Jeannie and me are heavily into a plant-based diet with a small selection of fish from time to time.

I will do more research and see if there are any updates that may be published.

In the meantime stay as healthy and as happy as you can be!

 

The Queen’s Christmas message.

Can the Queen save Christmas?

Learning from Dogs is going to take a break. For a week. We will be back ‘on air’, so to speak, on January 1st, 2021.

The Queen has been broadcasting a Christmas message since 1952. I was just eight-years-old when she first broadcast her own message.

How very much has changed over those years. Beyond imagination.

The Conversation has an article about the Queen’s broadcast and it is shared with you all.

ooOOoo

Can the Queen save Christmas?

December 21, 2020

By

Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations, Aston University

At 3pm UK time on Christmas day, the Queen’s Christmas message is broadcast across the Commonwealth. Each year the format is largely the same, with the Queen giving her own account of the main personal, national and international events of the year and reflecting on the meaning of Christmas. As such, it has become an important part of the festivities for many families in the UK and beyond.

With the COVID-19 pandemic still raging, fresh restrictions imposed and Brexit rapidly approaching, this year’s broadcast has taken on new significance as a source of stability and comfort, a constant in these difficult and uncertain times. Therefore, it is worth examining how the language used in the broadcast creates this sense of reassurance.

Since 1952, the Queen’s Christmas message has performed three ideological functions through rhetorical appeals based on faith and family.

Identification

The Queen shares personal anecdotes, which she often links to ordinary people’s experiences through the pronouns “we” and “us”.

On Christmas Day 1964, for instance, she told viewers that: “All of us who have been blessed with young families know from long experience that when one’s house is at its noisiest, there is often less cause for anxiety”. As most new parents would recognise this truism, it conveys the message that – in this respect at least – the royals are like any other family.

The first televised Royal Christmas message, 1957. The Royal Family/YouTube

The Queen is also aware that some families will be separated during the festive season and regularly expresses empathy for them. As she said in 1956: “I would like to send a special message of hope and encouragement to all who […] cannot be with those they love today: to the sick who cannot be at home”.

This message is made more poignant because of COVID-19, as the Queen recognised in her special address on April 5 2020. Indeed, it is almost inevitable that this year’s Christmas broadcast will include similar words of consolation for those who have been separated from their loved ones during the pandemic.

Continuity

Uncertainty is another recurring theme in the Queen’s Christmas broadcast, as she tries to make sense of the year’s events for the benefit of her audience. She gives her personal responses to national and global problems, which frequently involve the enactment of supposedly timeless (but predominantly Christian) values. On Christmas Day 1980, amid issues such as the Soviet-Afghanistan war and UK unemployment, she said:

We know that the world can never be free from conflict and pain, but Christmas also draws our attention to all that is hopeful and good in this changing world; it speaks of values and qualities that are true and permanent and it reminds us that the world we would like to see can only come from the goodness of the heart.

Among these values are faith, charity and compassion and, by praising them as a source of stability and the means for creating a better world, the Queen is perhaps seeking to strengthen adherence to them. Not only that, her appeals to Christian values and her emphasis on the family provide a sense of security for those who are disoriented by the rapid pace of social change. In turn, this sustains the monarchy by establishing the Queen as “a permanent anchor, bracing against the storms and grounding us in certainty”, as former British prime minister David Cameron said in 2012, marking her Diamond Jubilee.

Unity

The Queen’s rhetoric of unity is based primarily on the metaphor of the Commonwealth as a family, which recurs throughout the Christmas broadcasts. In 1956, for instance, she observed that:

We talk of ourselves as a “family of nations”, and perhaps our relations with one another are not so very different from those which exist between members of any family. We all know that these are not always easy, for there is no law within a family which binds its members to think, or act, or be alike.

Despite these differences, in 2011 the Queen described the Commonwealth as “a family of 53 nations, all with a common bond, shared beliefs, mutual values and goals”. As the head of the Commonwealth, it is perhaps no exaggeration to say that the Queen is the matriarch of this family of nations, whose primary role is to keep the unit together and uphold its values. Indeed, the Christmas broadcast has been an important source of soft power since the end of Empire. As Sonny Ramphal, a former Commonwealth secretary general, put it: “without her presence, the Commonwealth will feel it is missing the captain from the bridge”.

With the UK government having tightened Christmas COVID-19 restrictions, as well as the introduction of bans on UK travel in numerous countries, this festive season will be very different. Perhaps more than ever, as families face separation or the disruption of their traditional plans, people will seek solace in the ritual of the Queen’s Christmas broadcast.

ooOOoo

I can’t find a copyright-free photograph of the Queen’s Corgis but this one will do. It is from Pexels.

Photo by Nataliya Vaitkevich from Pexels

So her Majesty The Queen is 94! Wow!

That makes her the oldest monarch to have reigned in Britain. Ever!

Queen Victoria was Queen of the United Kingdom and Ireland from 20 June 1837 until her death, in 1901. That makes Queen Victoria the second longest monarch to have reigned.

So with that, it’s time for a small break.

See you in 2021!