Dog owners might not be too impressed when they’re able to point out a fallen piece of chicken or a thrown stick to their pooch, but dogs’ ability to follow that seemingly simple gesture places them in rare air in the animal kingdom. Some research suggests that even chimpanzees, our closest evolutionary relatives, don’t understand pointing as well as dogs.
For decades, researchers have debated whether dogs obtain their ability to understand pointing by spending time with humans and learning it or if our furry companions are born with a capacity to comprehend this deceptively complex feat of communication.
And if one follows that link above then one comes to Current Biology and, again, an extract:
Human cognition is believed to be unique in part because of early-emerging social skills for cooperative communication.1Comparative studies show that at 2.5 years old, children reason about the physical world similarly to other great apes, yet already possess cognitive skills for cooperative communication far exceeding those in our closest primate relatives.2,3 A growing body of research indicates that domestic dogs exhibit functional similarities to human children in their sensitivity to cooperative-communicative acts. From early in development, dogs flexibly respond to diverse forms of cooperative gestures.4,5 Like human children, dogs are sensitive to ostensive signals marking gestures as communicative, as well as contextual factors needed for inferences about these communicative acts.6, 7, 8 However, key questions about potential biological bases for these abilities remain untested. To investigate their developmental and genetic origins, we tested 375 8-week-old dog puppies on a battery of social-cognitive measures. We hypothesized that if dogs’ skills for cooperating with humans are biologically prepared, then they should emerge robustly in early development, not require extensive socialization or learning, and exhibit heritable variation. Puppies were highly skillful at using diverse human gestures, and we found no evidence that their performance required learning. Critically, over 40% of the variation in dogs’ point-following abilities and attention to human faces was attributable to genetic factors. Our results suggest that these social skills in dogs emerge early in development and are under strong genetic control.
And I am going to sneak one of the photographs in the original article!
And what better to close the post that one of the photos I showed yesterday of dear Joy.
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!
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?
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.”
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 Callof 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.
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.
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 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 does so.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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!
I was thinking yesterday morning that it was about time for me to publish a post.
Tuesday was a busy day with us in the morning going to collect the tractor from Runaway Tractors where it had been in for a service. Then in the afternoon I decided to go for a bike ride, something I try and do every other day. It was grand and I clocked up 18 miles.
The forecast for Wednesday was grim. And we awoke to a morning with much land covered in snow.
Dogs have been companions to humans for many millennia, but exactly when this relationship started is highly debated among scientists.
A study published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reveals that canine domestication may have first occurred in Siberia 23,000 years ago when humans and wolves were isolated together during the Last Glacial Maximum. After this initial domestication event, dogs most likely followed humans when they migrated across the Bering Land Bridge from East Asia to the Americas 15,000 years ago, reports Megan Marples for CNN.
“Wolves likely learned that scavenging from humans regularly was an easy free meal, while humans allowed this to happen so long as wolves were not aggressive or threatening,” Angela Perri, an archaeologist at Durham University and lead author of the study tells CNN.
The study was brought to fruition after Perri and her co-authors—David Meltzer, an archeologist at Southern Methodist University, and Gregor Larson, a scientist from Oxford University—were brainstorming how DNA evidence tells the story of migrating humans and dogs, reports James Gorman for the New York Times. After the authors scribbled down ideas on a whiteboard, they saw that both humans and canines had similar migration patterns and divergence that could explain how dogs and humans began their bond, reports the New York Times.
To see if the similarities between the timelines linked up with archeological evidence, Perri and her team analyzed the genome of 200 ancient dogs from around the world. They found that the canines had one genetic signature, A2b, in common. Once they reached the New World 15,000 years ago, they dispersed into four groups, reports David Grimm for Science.
The researchers found this dispersal matched a similar migration pattern of ancestral Native Americans that descended from Northern Siberia about 21,000 years ago. Connecting these timeline events between humans and dogs, the researchers concluded that humans must have brought dogs into the Americas somewhere around 15,000 years ago.
“Dogs are not going to go to the new world without people,” Meltzer tells the New York Times.
Further exploring the dogs’ genetic evidence, the team found all dogs with the genetic signature A2b descended from the same Siberian canines roughly 23,000 years ago, Science reports.
Looking back at human’s ancestral timeline and genetic evidence, the researchers found that ancient Northern Siberians intermingled with ancestral Native Americans before crossing the land bridge into the Americas. These meetings could have resulted in the two groups of people trading pups.
“People are exchanging information, they’re exchanging mates, they’re maybe exchanging their wolf pups,” Meltzer tells the New York Times.
While there is strong evidence that the initial domestication event occurred 23,000 years ago, the study relied only on mitochondrial DNA and could be missing the complete picture of domestication events, explains Pontus Skoglund, an ancient canine DNA expert from Crick Institute in London who was not involved in the study, to the New York Times. Likewise, Peter Savolainen, a geneticist at the Royal Institute of Technology, tells Science that the A2b signature has been found in other places in the world and is not unique to dogs in the Americas as the researchers suggested.
Still, the study reveals how the relationship between humans and dogs may have begun and how it may have dispersed across the globe. Perri and her team plan on looking at older dog fossils to gather more evidence.
“We have long known that the first Americans must have possessed well-honed hunting skills, the geological know-how to find stone and other necessary materials and been ready for new challenges,” Meltzer tells Peter Dockrill for Science Alert. “The dogs that accompanied them as they entered this completely new world may have been as much a part of their cultural repertoire as the stone tools they carried.”
There is a huge number of dogs throughout the world. The exact figure is impossible to determine. Here’s an extract from WoofDog’s piece on the global population:
Determining the exact number of pups that inhabit our planet is a bit of a challenge. The fact that many of them live on their own, rather than side by side with people, presents the main obstacle to providing accurate figures.
According to 2012 data, there were around 525 million canines in the world. This figure has grown considerably until the present day, so today, it is estimated to be about 900 million pooches.
And from the same website, here is an estimate of the global population of owned dogs:
Statistics related to canine ownership vary across different countries. Nevertheless, the task of calculating the number of canines owned by people around the globe is far less complicated than it is the case with free-range ones.
The reason for this lies in the fact that many countries have introduced legal regulations on mandatory registration of household animals.
My analysis is that the USA is second in the league of owned dogs.
But wherever there are dogs they are a rich and bountiful addition to the ambitions of humans.
What a Crowdsourced Study Taught Us About How Dogs Learn
A new study looks at the genes that underlie traits from self control to communication
By Viviane Callier, July 31, 2020
Thousands of years of selective dog breeding has created a fantastic diversity of domestic canine companions, from the workaholic border collie to the perky Pomeranian. In cultures around the world, humans bred different dogs to be good at tasks including guarding, hunting and herding. Later, in Victorian England, kennel clubs established breed standards related not only to their behavior, but also their appearance.
As genomic sequencing has become more affordable, scientists have begun to understand the genes behind physical features such as body shape and size. But understanding the genes behind dog cognition—the mental processes that underlie dogs’ ability to learn, reason, communicate, remember, and solve problems—is a much trickier and thornier task. Now, in a pair of new studies published in Animal Cognition and in Integrative and Comparative Biology, a team of researchers has begun to quantify just how much variation in dog cognition exists, and to show how much of it has a genetic basis.
To study canine cognition, the studies’ authors turned to publicly available genetic information from a 2017 study, and a large community science project, Dognition.com, in which dog owners tested their own pets. “These papers offer an exciting integration of two forms of big data,” says Jeff Stevens, a psychologist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln who was not involved in the study.
Previous studies often compared cognition in one breed against another using small sample sizes of dogs from each. This study, by contrast, is the first to examine the variation in cognition across three dozen breeds, and the genetic basis of that variation, explains Evan MacLean, a comparative psychologist at the University of Arizona who oversaw the pair of new studies. MacLean says dog breeds may be an ideal way to study the heritability of cognitive traits because breeds—all part of the same species—represent close genetic relatives with an incredibly diverse range of appearances and behaviors.
To gather a sufficient amount of data on how dogs reason and solve problems, the researchers looked to the Dognition.com portal. The initiative, created by Duke University dog researcher Brian Hare, started with tests in the lab. Researchers developed methods to understand how dogs think. They then stripped those methods down, and simplified them for dog owners to do themselves. In an earlier project, the researchers tested dogs in the lab and compared their results to those from owners testing the same dog at home. The results were the same, giving them confidence that the results from the citizen science project were reliable.
To participate in this project, dog owners tested their pups on 11 standardized tasks used by animal behaviorists on a variety of species that reflect four aspects of cognition: inhibitory control, communication, memory and physical reasoning. One task that measured inhibitory control, for example, involved having an owner put a treat on the floor in front of the dog and then verbally forbidding the dog from taking it. The owner then measured how long the dog would wait before eating the treat. In a task to assess communication skills, the dog owner placed two treats on the ground and gestured towards one of them. The owner then determined if the dog approached the indicated treat. To assess memory, the owner visibly placed food under one of two cups, waited for a few minutes, and then determined if the dog remembered which cup the food was placed under. To test physical reasoning, the owner hid food under one of two cups, out of view of the dog. The owner lifted the empty cup to show the dog that there was no food and then assessed whether the dog approached the cup with the food underneath.
The participating dog owners reported their dog’s scores and breed, producing a dataset with 1,508 dogs across 36 breeds. The researchers analyzed the scores and found that about 70 percent of the variance in inhibitory control was heritable, or attributable to genes. Communication was about 50 percent heritable, while memory and physical reasoning were about 20 percent heritable.
“What’s so cool about that is these two traits that are highly heritable [control and communication] are those that are thought to be linked to dogs’ domestication process,” says Zachary Silver, a graduate student in the Canine Cognition Center at Yale who was not involved in the study.
Dogs are better at following humans’ communicative cues than wolves, and this is something that seems to be highly heritable, explains Silver. In contrast, there’s some evidence that wolves are better than dogs at physical reasoning.
Some of these traits are also influenced by environment and how the dog was handled as a puppy, so there are both genetic and environmental components. In fact, there is so much environmental and experiential influence on these traits that Gitanjali Gnanadesikan, a graduate student in MacLean’s lab and lead author of the new studies, cautions against the idea that these findings support certain breed restrictions or stereotypes. “Even the highly heritable traits have a lot of room for environmental influence,” she says. “This shouldn’t be interpreted as, ‘each of these breeds is just the way they are, and there’s nothing that can be done about it.’”
In the same way that women are on average shorter than men, but there’s quite a lot of overlapping variation within each sex, dog breeds also show a lot of variation within each breed that overlaps with variation among breeds.
Previous work has linked differences in inhibitory control to the estimated size of dogs’ brains. Comparative studies across many different species, ranging from tiny rodents to elephants and chimpanzees, also show that some aspects of self-control are strongly related to brain size. The bigger the brain size, the more self-control the animals seem to have, MacLean says.
Stevens notes that a lot of things—not just inhibitory control—correlate with brain size across species. And brain size, metabolic rate, lifespan, home range size are all correlated with body size. When many traits are correlated with each other, it is not clear which of these factors may underlie the cognitive differences. So there are a number of questions remaining to be explored.
After showing the degree to which different aspects of dog cognition are heritable, Gnanadesikan and MacLean used publicly available information on the genomes of dog breeds to search for genetic variation that was associated with the cognitive traits of interest. The researchers found that, like many other complex traits, there were many genes, each with small effect, that contribute to dogs’ cognitive traits. That is in contrast to morphological features in dogs; about 50 percent of variation in dog body size can be accounted for by variation in a single gene.
One of the limitations of the study is that the researchers did not have cognitive and genetic information from the same dogs; the genomes were breed averages. In the future, the researchers are planning to collect genetic data from the very same dogs that are completing the cognitive tests, to get measures of cognitive and genetic variation at the level of individual dogs. “This gives us a roadmap for places that we might want to look at more carefully in the future,” MacLean explains.
Now this is an article that deserves to be read carefully so if you are in a hurry bookmark this and wait until you can sit and absorb the messages the article contains.
I was minded to look up Gitanjali’s details and I am glad I did. These are the details:
I am an evolutionary biologist and comparative psychologist who is interested in social behavior and cognition. I work with Evan MacLean in the Arizona Canine Cognition Center studying the development and evolution of behavior and cognition in dogs and wolves.
I think I will reach out to her and see if she has more information she would like to share with us all.
How Do Dogs Find Their Way Home? They Might Sense Earth’s Magnetic Field
Our canine companions aren’t the only animals that may be capable of magnetoreception A terrier fitted with GPS remote tracking device and camera (Kateřina Benediktová / Czech University of Life Sciences
Last week, Cleo the four-year-old yellow Labrador retriever showed up on the doorstep of the home her family moved away from two years ago, reports Caitlin O’Kane for CBS News. As it turns out, Cleo traveled nearly 60 miles from her current home in Kansas to her old one in Missouri. Cleo is just one of many dogs who have made headlines for their homing instincts; in 1924, for example, a collie known as “Bobbie the Wonder Dog” traveled 2,800 miles in the dead of winter to be reunited with his people.
Researchers led by biologists Kateřina Benediktová and Hynek Burda of the Czech University of Life Sciences Department of Game Management and Wildlife Biology outfitted 27 hunting dogs representing 10 different breeds with GPS collars and action cameras, and tracked them in more than 600 excursions over the course of three years, Michael Thomsen reports for Daily Mail. The dogs were driven to a location, led on-leash into a forested area, and then released to run where they pleased. The team only focused on dogs that ventured at least 200 meters away from their owners.
But the researchers were more curious about the dogs’ return journeys than their destinations. When called back to their owners, the dogs used two different methods for finding their way back from an average of 1.1 kilometers (about .7 miles) away. About 60 percent of the dogs used their noses to follow their outbound route in reverse, a strategy known as “tracking,” while the other 30 percent opted to use a new route, found through a process called “scouting.”
According to the study authors, both tactics have merits and drawbacks, and that’s why dogs probably alternate between the two depending on the situation.
“While tracking may be safe, it is lengthy,” the authors write in the study. “Scouting enables taking shortcuts and might be faster but requires navigation capability and, because of possible errors, is risky.” Data from the scouting dogs revealed that their navigation capability is related to a magnetic connection (Kateřina Benediktová / Czech University of Life Sciences)
Data from the scouting dogs revealed that their navigation capability is related to a magnetic connection. All of the dogs who did not follow their outbound path began their return with a short “compass run,” a quick scan of about 20 meters along the Earth’s north-south geomagnetic axis, reports the Miami Herald’s Mitchell Willetts. Because they don’t have any familiar visual landmarks to use, and dense vegetation at the study sites made “visual piloting unreliable,” the compass run helps the dogs recalibrate their own position to better estimate their “homing” direction.
Catherine Lohmann, a biologist at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, who studies magnetoreception and navigation in such turtles tells Erik Stokstad at Science that the finding of the compass run, however, is a first in dogs. This newfound ability means that they can likely remember the direction they had been pointing when they started, and then use the magnetic compass to find the most efficient way home.
To learn more about how magneto-location works for the dogs, the study authors will begin a new experiment placing magnets on the dogs’ collars to find out if this disrupts their navigational skills.
Courtney Sexton, a writer and researcher based in Washington, DC, studies human-animal interactions. She is a 2020 AAAS Mass Media Fellow and the co-founder and director of The Inner Loop, a nonprofit organization for writers.
This is, as I mentioned earlier, a most interesting article. I can’t wait to read more in The Smithsonian. We actually subscribe to the paper version of the magazine. So fingers crossed that in time there will be a further report from Catherine Lohmann.
If you’ve ever given a dog a boop on the snout, you may have noticed that its rhinarium—the furless patch of skin that surrounds the nostrils—is wet and cool. A new study published in Scientific Reports has found that these chilly rhinaria make dogs sensitive to radiating heat, which in turn might help them track down warm-blooded prey.
Dog noses are chock full of nerve endings—they have more than 100 million sensory receptor sites in their nasal cavities, compared to humans’ six million—making them extraordinarily keen sniffers. It thus seemed likely, according to the study authors, that dogs’ rhinaria serve some sort of sensory function.
Low tissue temperature seems to compromise sensory sensitivity in animals with one notable exception: crotaline snakes, also known as pit vipers, which seem to strike more accurately at warm-blooded prey when their heat-sensitive pit organs—located between each eye and nostril—are colder. Cool snakes are also more sensitive to thermal radiation. Perhaps, the researchers theorized, pooches deploy their noses for heat detection, too.
To test the theory, the researchers trained three pet dogs to choose the warmer of two panels. One, according to Gizmodo’s George Dvorsky, was heated to between 51 and 58 degrees Fahrenheit higher than the ambient temperature, similar to the body temperature of a fur-covered mammal. The other, which served as the control, had a “neutral” temperature close to that of the ambient environment. After the training, the dogs were put to the test in a double-blind experiment; neither they nor the people carrying out the trial knew from the get-go which object was warmer, since nothing visually distinguished them.
Still, all three dogs were able to home in on the warmer object, suggesting that they can detect even weak thermal radiation. “[T]he temperature of the mammalian bodies that emit [thermal radiation is not very high, unlike the Sun for instance,” first study author Anna Bálint, a biologist at Lund University in Sweden, tells Gizmodo. To pick up on the heat radiating from warm-blooded prey, dogs would need “very sensitive sensors.”
The nose seemed like the most likely candidate leading the dogs in the right direction. All other parts of a dog’s body are covered in insulating fur, with the exception of the eyes, which “are not suitable for receiving infrared radiation, because the sensitive structures are hidden behind a thick layer of tissue,” study co-author Ronald Kröger, also a Lund University biologist, tells Gizmodo. But to test their theory once again, the researchers conducted functional MRI scans of the brains of 13 pet dogs. The left somatosensory cortex in dogs’ brains—which “delivers input from the nose,” according to Virginia Morell of Science—was more responsive to objects emitting weak thermal radiation than neutral objects.
The researchers don’t know precisely how dog rhinaria convert energy into a nervous signal, and it’s not clear whether pups’ heat-detecting abilities are particularly effective if their hypothetical prey is far away. The test objects were placed around five feet from the dogs; Gary Settles, a mechanical engineer at Pennsylvania State University who was not involved in the study, tells Science that he doubts “dog rhinarium can distinguish patterns of hot and cold objects at a distance.”
But for shorter distances, at least, being able to sense the heat emanating from prey could help canines hunt even if their sight, smell or hearing is obscured. That may not matter much to domestic dogs, but their closest wild relative, the grey wolf, preys on large, warm-blooded animals. “[T]he ability to detect the radiation from warm bodies would be advantageous for such predators,” the authors note in the study. And perhaps most importantly, the study offers yet another reason as to why your dog is great: Its nose knows more than you might think.
The more that we understand our favourite pooch, the more that we are in awe of them. Their noses are incredible. To be honest, it is very difficult to comprehend just what this primary sense of dogs means to a dog.
I will take the closing sentence of the article to close my own thoughts:
To be honest, it is very difficult to comprehend just what this primary sense of dogs means to a dog.
Dogs are famously good at interpreting human signals, whether communicated verbally or through gestures. But much of what we know about our furry friends’ comprehension of social cues focuses on pet dogs, which share close relationships with their owners and are trained to follow commands. Now, a study published in Frontiers in Psychology, suggests that stray dogs can also understand human gestures, indicating that this ability might be innate.
The new research took place on the streets of several regions in India, which is home to some 30 million stray dogs. Coexistence between canines and humans there is not always peaceful; people have been known to attack street dogs, and vice versa. Around 36 percent of the world’s annual rabies deaths occur in India, most of them children who came into contact with infected dogs.
To better manage the country’s street dogs, it’s essential to gain further knowledge of their behavior, Anindita Bhadra, study co-author and animal behaviorist at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research Kolkata, tells Liz Langley of National Geographic. So she and her colleagues set out to discover whether strays, which have never undergone specific training, are able to understand humans in a similar way to their pet counterparts.
The researchers took to the streets equipped with two bowls; one contained chicken and the other was empty but had been rubbed with raw chicken, transferring the food’s scent. The bowls were covered with pieces of cardboard and handed to an experimenter who did not know which one contained the snack. This researcher would approach a stray dog, place the bowls on the ground and point at one of them, sometimes momentarily, sometimes repeatedly.
In total, the researchers studied 160 adult strays. Around half of them refused to get close to either bowl, perhaps because they had negative interactions with humans in the past, the researchers speculate. But of the dogs that did approach the bowls, approximately 80 percent went to the one to which the experimenter had pointed. Whether the researcher had pointed to the bowl briefly or repeatedly did not seem to matter. This response, according to the study authors, suggests that untrained stray dogs are “capable of following complex pointing cues from humans.”
Dogs share an intertwined evolutionary history with humans, with domesticated pooches emerging at least 10,000 to 15,000 years ago, though some experts have argued for an even earlier date. This close contact has prompted dogs to develop a number of skills that allow them to communicate with people, including interpreting human emotion. Still, Bhadra says, the researchers found it “quite amazing” that stray dogs without a history of close human interaction were able to “follow a gesture as abstract as momentary pointing.”
“This means that they closely observe the human, whom they are meeting for the first time, and they use their understanding of humans to make a decision,” Bhadra adds. “This shows their intelligence and adaptability.”
Because some dogs seemed anxious and were wary of approaching the researchers, it’s not clear how a dog’s personality—and past experiences—might affect its ability to interpret human signals. But this ability does not appear to be entirely dependent on training, the study authors say, which in turn should inform efforts to manage stray dogs.
“They are quite capable of understanding our body language and we need to give them their space,” Bhadra says. “A little empathy and respect for another species can reduce a lot of conflict.”
Mother Nature News had a second picture in their broadly-similar article. Indeed, I’m going to republish this article as well. For although they are of the same story they offer a slightly different account.
Even stray dogs understand human cues
A new study shows these feral canines are paying close attention.
And that longstanding connection shows up in feral dogs.
Behavioral biologist Dr. Anindita Bhadra of the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research in Kolkata, India, revealed this by studying stray dogs in several Indian cities. In the experiment, Bhadra and her colleagues would find a solo stray dog and put two covered bowls on the ground nearby. They they’d simply point to one of the bowls; some did this just once, others did it a few times.
The researchers, who published their work in Frontiers in Psychology, recorded the dogs’ reactions. Half the dogs seemed nervous, and didn’t look at or come close to either bowl. But the other half — noted as less anxious dogs by the researchers — approached the bowls. Of those friendlier dogs, about 80% went to the bowl the researcher pointed at. As long as the dogs weren’t too scared of the people, they were easily able to interpret what the pointing meant.
“We thought it was quite amazing that the dogs could follow a gesture as abstract as momentary pointing,” Bhadra said in a news release. “This means that they closely observe the human, whom they are meeting for the first time, and they use their understanding of humans to make a decision. This shows their intelligence and adaptability.”
In another study, three out of 13 untrained 8-week-old wolf puppies spontaneously retrieved a ball for a person who threw it, as MNN’s Mary Jo DiLonardo explains. It was a small study, and a low percentage of retrieving puppies, but it was an unexpected result as these weren’t domesticated dogs. “It was so unexpected, and I immediately knew that this meant that if variation in human-directed play behavior exists in wolves, this behavior could have been a potential target for early selective pressures exerted during dog domestication,” Christina Hansen Wheat, a biologist at Stockholm University, said.
Her observations show that playing with people may be a very old trait for wolves, that could reflect how our human ancestors first got to know them. This playful behavior may have sparked humans’ interest in domestication. If a dog could fetch a stick or other thrown object, they could be quite useful to hunting humans.
But long before that happened, dogs served an important purpose — assisting people in locating and retrieving prey, and serving as eyes and ears for an intruder. Simple tasks like showing they can follow directions or fetch an object may have moved prehistoric dogs from outside the fire circle to within it, which is why understanding these behaviors are so important.
If we go back into the mists of time then prehistoric wolves (or dogs) learnt to bond with early humans because it served both their interests to so do. Humans became much more adept at hunting and wolves obviously became the benefactors of food!
Now dogs are so well bonded to human gestures that even non-domesticated dogs understand the signals that we humans put out. I say ‘non-domesticated’ but in a real sense all dogs are domesticated. It would be more accurate to say that these are dogs who do not have a home with humans.
Dogs use a part of their brain for processing numbers. But more than that, dogs use a similar brain region to process numbers as we humans do.
I found that fascinating.
This was one the results of reading a very interesting article published by The Smithsonian magazine earlier on in December.
Let me share it with you.
Dogs’ Brains Naturally Process Numbers, Just Like Ours
Scientists stuck 11 dogs in fMRI scanners to see if their brains had a knack for quantity
Katherine J. Wu, smithsonianmag.com
Dec. 19, 2019,
Sit. Stay. Fetch. Count?
Sort of. A team of scientists has found that dogs naturally process numbers in a similar brain region as humans, reports Virginia Morell for Science. While that doesn’t mean mutts can do math, it seems they have an innate sense of quantity, and may take notice when you put fewer treats in their bowl, according to a study published this week in Biology Letters.
Importantly, while other research has delved into similar stunts that scientists coaxed out of canines by rewarding them with treats, the new study suggests a knack for numbers is present in even untrained dogs—and could have deep evolutionary roots. This supports the idea that the ways in which animals process quantity in their brains may be “ancient and widespread among species,” Michael Beran, a psychologist at Georgia State University who wasn’t involved in the research, tells Morell.
To test pooches’ numerical prowess, a team led by Gregory Berns, a neuroscientist at Emory University, scanned the brains of 11 dogs of different breeds as they gazed at screens serially flashing different numbers of variably-sized dots. As the images flipped rapidly past, the researchers looked for activity in a region of the canine brain called the parietotemporal cortex, analogous to humans’ parietal cortex, which is known to help people rapidly process numbers. In humans, this region lights up on a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner when numbers start to vary—a sign that cells are working hard to puzzle through the difference.
Something similar seems to apply to canines, the team found. When dogs hopped into the scanner, most of their parietotemporal cortices showed more activity when the numbers of dots flashed onto the screen changed (for instance, three small dots followed by ten big dots) than when they stayed the same (four small dots followed by four large dots).
The behavior wasn’t universal: 3 out of the researchers’ 11 test subjects failed to discern the difference. But it’s not surprising that the rest did, Krista Macpherson, a canine cognition researcher at Western University in Canada who wasn’t involved in the study, tells Morell.
Of course, approximating quantities of dots isn’t the same as solving complex mathematical equations, as our brains are equipped to do. But both behaviors stem from an inherent sense for numbers—something that appears to span the 80-million-year evolutionary gap between dogs and humans, the findings suggest.
Understanding how that basic ability might evolve into “higher” mathematical skills is a clear next step, study author Lauren Aulet, a psychologist at Emory University, says in a statement. Until then, we humans can count on the fact that we have plenty in common with our canine companions.
An inherent sense for numbers. Wow!
This is yet another aspect of the relationship we have with our pooches that is deeper and closer than I imagined, and I’m sure I don’t only speak for myself.
Science has maybe found a clue to the ancestor of the dog and the wolf.
For an animal that means so much to us humans, the origins of the dog are still uncertain. Indeed, as this interesting article shows, the origins of the wolf are uncertain.
Was This 18,000-Year-Old Puppy Frozen in Siberian Permafrost the Ancestor of Wolves, Dogs or Both?
DNA tests on the well-preserved remains can’t determine whether the little canine was wild or domestic
By Jason Daley, smithsonianmag.com
Dec. 3, 2019, 10 a.m.”>December 3, 2019
Meet Dogor, an 18,000-year-old pup unearthed in Siberian permafrost whose name means “friend” in the Yakut language. The remains of the prehistoric pup are puzzling researchers because genetic testing shows it’s not a wolf or a dog, meaning it could be an elusive ancestor of both.
Locals found the remains in the summer of 2018 in a frozen lump of ground near the Indigirka River, according to the North-Eastern Federal University in Yakutsk. Parts of the animal are incredibly well-preserved, including its head, nose, whiskers, eyelashes and mouth, revealing that it still had its milk teeth when it died. Researchers suggest the animal was just two months old when it passed, though they do not know the cause of death.
The pup is so well-preserved that researchers at the Centre for Palaeogenetics in Sweden were able to sequence the animal’s DNA using a piece of rib bone. The results found that Dogor was male, but even after two rounds of analysis the team could not determine whether he was a dog or a wolf.
“It’s normally relatively easy to tell the difference between the two,” David Stanton, a Centre for Palaeogenetics research fellow, tells Amy Woodyatt at CNN. “We have a lot of data from it already, and with that amount of data, you’d expect to tell if it was one or the other. The fact that we can’t might suggest that it’s from a population that was ancestral to both—to dogs and wolves.”
The find is exciting, regardless of whether Dogor turns out to be a common canine ancestor, an early dog, or an early wolf. Hannah Knowles at The Washington Post reports that Dogor comes from an interesting time in canine evolution, when wolf species were dying out and early dogs were beginning to emerge.
“As you go back in time, as you get closer to the point that dogs and wolves converge, [it becomes] harder to tell between the two,” Stanton tells Knowles.
The history of just how and when dogs split from wolves is unresolved. There’s a general agreement among scientists that modern gray wolves and dogs split from a common ancestor 15,000 to 40,000 years ago, explains Brian Handwerk previously for Smithsonian.com. How dogs became dogs, however, is contested. Some research suggests that dogs were domesticated by humans once, while other studies have found dogs were domesticated multiple times. Exactly where in the world wild canines became man’s best friend is also disputed. The origin of the human-animal bond has been traced to Mongolia, China and Europe.
Scientists disagree about how dogs ended up paired with people, too. Some suspect humans captured wolf pups and actively domesticated them. Others suggest that a strain of “friendly,” less aggressive wolves more or less domesticated themselves by hanging out near humans, gaining access to their leftover food.
Dorgor’s DNA could help unravel these mysteries. The team plans to do a third round of DNA testing that may help definitively place Dogor in the canine family tree, report Daria Litvinova and Roman Kutuko at the Associated Press.
This is incredibly interesting, don’t you think?
Hopefully I will hear of that third round of DNA testing and, if so, will most definitely share it with you.
One dog year is not equivalent to seven human years, despite widespread use of the ratio for calculating the age of canine companions. Presumably, the ratio is based on the average lifespan of dogs being 10 years and humans being 70 years, it’s not quite so simple. The formula is not based on any real science and it was debunked by veterinarians years ago.
But geneticists digging into the mysteries of ageing have developed a new calculation to understand how our canine companions’ ages correspond to our own.
To understand how dogs age, the team looked at a phenomenon called DNA methylation. As mammals get older, their DNA picks up methyl groups that “stick” to their DNA. While these groups don’t change the DNA itself, they attach to the genetic molecule and can turn certain genes on or off, which is an important part of epigenetics, or the way environmental factors cause certain genes to express themselves.
Methlyation occurs at a relatively steady rate as humans age, which allows researchers to estimate a person’s age, a process they’ve dubbed the “epigenetic clock.”
In the new paper on dog years, which has yet to be peer reviewed and is currently posted on the preprint server bioRxiv, a team led by Tina Wang of the University of California, San Diego, compared the epigenetic clocks in people to canines to better understand the genes associated with aging. They picked dogs because most live in the same environments as humans and also receive some degree of medical care, like humans do.
The team looked at methylation rates in 104 Labrador retrievers between the ages of four weeks and 16 years old, reports Michelle Starr at Science Alert. They then compared them to published methylation profiles of 320 humans from age one to 103. (They also compared both to 133 mice methylation profiles.)
It turns out some parts of a dog’s life follows the same pattern as humans, though other longevity milestones don’t link up quite as nicely. For instance, the methylation rate showed a seven-week-old pup corresponds to a 9-month-old human baby, and both species begin to get their first teeth at this time.
But the comparison breaks down after early puppyhood. The dog clock ticks much faster with pups speeding through puberty and reaching sexual maturity within their first year. Then, the dog’s epigenetic clock slows down as the dog ages, and begins to match up with humans again in its later years.
Overall, the average 12-year lifespan of a Labrador lined up with the average worldwide lifespan of humans, which is about 70 years.
While the study complicates the concept of “dog years,” it does show that the animals experience similar methylation processes as humans.
“We already knew that dogs get the same diseases and functional declines of aging that humans do, and this work provides evidence that similar molecular changes are also occurring during aging,” Matt Kaeberlein, a biogerontologist at the University of Washington who was not involved in the study, tells Virginia Morell at Science. “It’s a beautiful demonstration of the conserved features of the epigenetic age clocks shared by dogs and humans.”
The new formula for a dog’s ages based on the study requires a little more math than multiplying by seven. You multiply the natural logarithm of a dog’s age by 16, then add 31 [human_age = 16ln(dog_age) + 31].
According to the formula, a 2-year-old dog is the equivalent of a 42-year-old human, but things slow down after that. A 5-year-old dog is the equivalent of a 56.75 year old human, and a 10-year-old dog is the equivalent of 67.8-year-old person.
Evolutionary biologist Steve Austad of the University of Alabama in Birmingham, who was not involved in the study, tells Morell that he’s not too surprised that the epigenetic clock applies to dogs, too. He says that by studying different dog breeds with different lifespans the researchers may find some interesting results.
This formula is not the last word on dog years, however, especially since it only looked at one breed. Erika Mansourian, writing for the American Kennel Club, reports that the American Veterinary Medical Association says the accurate way to calculate dog years for a medium-sized dog is to assume the first year is equivalent to 15 years and age two adds another nine years. After that, each year of a dog’s life is equivalent to five human years. It doesn’t perfectly line up with the new formula, but both acknowledge that dogs age rapidly in their first years of life.
Whatever the case, dogs’ lives are all too short. That may be why people are excited about a project by the Dog Aging Project, which is currently recruiting 10,000 pets and their owners to participate in a new study that will look at the dogs’ health, gut microbes, diet and exercise to understand aging. And 500 lucky dogs will test out a new drug that may help slow the aging process, which could help us someday, too.
I hope you found it worthwhile to publish what is, in essence, a duplication of the same story!