Tag Archives: canine science

How to talk to your dog – according to science

The Conversation

Juliane Kaminski, University of Portsmouth

Dogs are special. Every dog owner knows that. And most dog owners feel their dog understands every word they say and every move they make. Research over the last two decades shows dogs really can understand human communication in ways no other species can. But a new study confirms that if you want to train your new puppy, you should be speaking to it in a certain way to maximise the chances that it follows what you’re saying.

There is already quite a lot of research evidence showing that the way we communicate to dogs is different from the way we communicate to other humans. When we talk to dogs, we use what is called “dog directed speech”. This means we change the structure of our sentences, shortening and simplifying them. We also tend to speak with a higher pitch in our voices. We also do this when we are not sure we are understood or when talking to very young infants.

A new study has shown we use an even higher pitch when talking to puppies, and that this tactic really does help the animals to pay attention more. The research, published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, showed that talking to puppies using dog-directed speech makes them react and attend more to their human instructor than regular speech.

To test this, the researchers use so-called “play back” experiments. They made recordings of humans repeating the phrase “Hi! Hello cutie! Who’s a good boy? Come here! Good boy! Yes! Come here sweetie pie! What a good boy!”. Each time, the speaker was asked to look at photos of either puppies, adult dogs, old dogs or at no photos. Analysing the recordings showed the volunteers did change how they spoke to different aged dogs.

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The researchers then played the recordings back to several puppies and adult dogs and recorded the animals’ behaviour in response. They found the puppies responded more strongly to the recordings made while the speakers looked at pictures of dogs (the dog-directed speech).

The study didn’t find the same effect applied for adult dogs. But other studies that recorded dogs’ reactions to the human voice in live interactions, including work I have done, have suggested dog-directed speech can be useful for communicating with canines of any age.

Following the point

It’s also been proven (and most dog-owners will tell you) that we can communicate with dogs through physical gestures. From puppy age on, dogs respond to human gestures, such as pointing, in ways other species can not. The test is very simple. Place two identical cups covering small pieces of food in front of your dog, making sure it cannot see the food and doesn’t have any information about the contents of the cups. Now point to one of the two cups while establishing eye contact with your dog. Your dog will follow your gesture to the cup you pointed to and explore the cup, expecting to find something underneath.

This is because your dog understands that your action is an attempt to communicate. This is fascinating because not even human’s closest living relatives, chimpanzees, seem to understand that humans communicate intent in this situation. Nor do wolves – dog’s closest living relatives – even if they are raised like dogs in a human environment.

This has led to the idea that dogs’ skills and behaviours in this area are actually adaptations to the human environment. That means living in close contact with humans for over 30,000 years has led dogs to evolve communication skills that are effectively equal to those of human children.

But there are significant differences in how dogs understand our communication and how children do. The theory is that dogs, unlike children, view human pointing as some kind of mild command, telling them where to go, rather than a way of transferring information. When you point for a child, on the other hand, they will think you are informing them about something.

This ability of dogs to recognise “spatial directives” would be the perfect adaptation to life with humans. For example, dogs have been used for thousands of years as a kind of “social tool” to help with herding and hunting, when they had to be guided over a great distance by gestural instructions. The latest research affirms the idea that not only have dogs developed an ability to recognise gestures but also a special sensitivity to the human voice that helps them identify when they need to respond to what’s being said.

The ConversationJuliane Kaminski, Senior lecturer in psychology, University of Portsmouth

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Who’s top dog? New research sorts dominant and submissive canine poses

The Conversation

Sunanda Creagh, The Conversation

In the first quantitative study on status behaviour in a stable group of domestic dogs, Dutch researchers have identified and categorised dog behaviours most consistently associated with dominance and submission.

The new study, published today in the journal PLOS ONE, adds some quantitative data to a debate usually infused with opinion.

The researchers found that the concept of dominance does apply to domestic dogs and that certain behaviours, regardless of context, are good indicators of the dog’s status.

“The best indicator for status assessment in a pair of individuals, as well as for the position in the group (rank order), is submission, not aggression,” said lead researcher, Joanne van der Borg, a behavioural biologist at Wageningen University in the Netherlands.

“The best formal submission signal is body tail wag, often shown in combination with mouth lick. Lowering of posture is the best status indicator for most relationships. The tail position is the most informative body part of dogs for the assessment of status in relationships.”

The best formal submission signal is body tail wag, often shown in combination with mouth lick.

Lessons for dog owners

Janice Lloyd, Senior Lecturer in Animal Behaviour at James Cook University said dominance-submissive relationship only exists when one dog consistently submits to the other. “Once the relationship is established, it is reinforced through warning postures and ritualistic aggressive encounters, rather than full-blown fighting,” she said.

Aggressiveness and social dominance are not the same thing she said, adding that postural displays can provide more information about status and rank than aggressiveness alone.

“I think it is important to note that the paper analysed dominance through behavioural measures and that dominance was used as a variable. It is uncertain if the ‘concept of dominance’ is useful to explain dog–dog aggression or dog-human aggression,” said Lloyd, who was not involved in the study.

“Although dominance-submissive relationships exist among some pet dogs (and probably cats), a linear hierarchy may not exist as individuals can share similar ranks and an animal will guard only what is important to it.”

The dominance-submissive model is not that relevant for most of the behaviours dog owners want from their dogs, she said.

“Most aggressive behaviour seen in dogs is caused by fear and/or anxiety rather than dominance. It would be ill-advised for a dog owner to think that there was one or two dog postures identified in the paper that would be most likely to predict a dog that was about to be aggressive,” she said.

Visual cues that indicate fear include blinking, licking, turning away, moving away and – if the perceived threat is not removed – growling, snapping and possibly biting, she said.

“My advice is for dog owners to learn as much as they can about canine body language and avoid putting their dogs into situations where the ‘ladder of aggression’ may escalate. If owners believe that an individual dog has a ‘dominance-trait’ that drives it to achieve a high rank, this might lead to coercive and punishment-based techniques, in order for the owner to erroneously try to ‘show the dog who is boss’, which can exacerbate the problem and ruin the owner-pet relationship.”

The ConversationSunanda Creagh is Editor at The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.
 

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Ten Animal Welfare Myths

by Tim Harding, B.Sc.

(An edited version of this essay was published in The Skeptic magazine, June 2014, Vol 34 No 2, under the title ‘Creature Features’. The essay is based on a talk presented to the Mordi Skeptics in February 2012).

The term ‘animal welfare’ is not easy to define, but it usually includes the mental and physical aspects of an animal’s well-being, as well as people’s subjective ethical preferences as to how animals should be treated.  These preferences can give rise to a range of opinions about animal welfare; but as we skeptics are fond of saying: ‘people are entitled to their own opinions but not their own facts’.

I realise that this article may be controversial, even amongst my fellow skeptics.  Nevertheless, I would like to focus on some common factual misunderstandings about animal welfare; and try to dispel a few myths.

There appear to be two extreme polarised positions in the community regarding animal welfare.  An outdated view, often attributed to Rene Descartes (1596 –1650 CE), is that animals are not consciously aware, and are therefore unable to experience pain and suffering.  At the opposite pole are those who believe that animals have rights like humans do; and that hunting, farming and other uses of animals for human purposes are morally unacceptable.  Between these two extremes are various other views, including evidence-based or scientific approaches versus the so-called ‘organic’ or free-range farming industries.

Animal welfare science is a relatively new field of study; but some good research is now being done – including in Australia.  The two main experimental approaches are firstly, animal physiological and biochemical testing (e.g. blood tests) to objectively measure stress in animals under different conditions; and secondly, animal behavioural and preference studies (such as testing whether animals prefer more food or better surroundings).

Myth #1: Animals are best treated like humans

The attribution of human characteristics to non-human animals is known as anthropomorphism.  It is sometimes used to appeal to human emotions in campaign slogans about animal welfare (e.g. ‘Meat is murder!’ and ‘How would YOU like to be kept in a cage?’).

There are two main problems with an anthropomorphic approach to animal welfare. Firstly, it is emotional rather than evidence-based – and is therefore unscientific or lacking in objectivity.  Secondly, treating animals like humans is often a projection of human preferences rather than a consideration of the real needs of the animal.  Apart from the obvious differences in intelligence, anatomy and physiology, animals have different instincts to humans and they express a much more limited range of emotions than humans do.

Most of us love our pets and regard them as members of the family.  But treating them like little humans may not actually be in their best interests.  For instance, most of us are aware that chocolate is poisonous to dogs, but we may not be as aware that onions, garlic, grapes, avocados and macadamia nuts are also toxic to canine animals.[1]  Many dogs are also lactose intolerant, so dairy products are not a good idea for them either.[2]  So we should be careful about feeding human leftovers to dogs.

Myth #2: Dogs are tame wolves

Our treatment of dogs has been shaped by a historical view that they are basically wolves with nicer table manners. This is the concept behind much of traditional dog training – that dogs are pack animals competing with humans for dominance over the family.  This outdated view is now being challenged by modern canine science.[3]

All dogs are different varieties of one species descended from wolves.  Archaeological evidence now shows that dogs were first domesticated over 20,000 years ago – long before the first human settlements (around 9000BCE) and while we were still hunter-gatherers.  Dogs used to follow human hunters and scavenge from our leftovers.  We may have even used dogs to assist in our hunting.

Over this quite long period, dogs have been selected by humans for their mental temperaments as much as their physical characteristics.  As a result, modern pet dog breeds often bond more closely with humans than with other dogs.  It can therefore be bad welfare to deprive pet dogs (not farm dogs) of human contact for extended periods.

Myth #3: Some dog breeds bite humans more than others

Statistical research by the Victorian Bureau of Animal Welfare (BAW) has shown that the major contributing factor to dog attacks in urban public places is the inadequate confinement of dogs to their property, rather than the breed of dog.  Most incidents occur on the footpath or road bordering the dog owner’s property, as a result of dogs displaying territorial aggression toward people passing by or attempting to access the front door.  If owners ensured their dogs were adequately confined to the house or back yard, over 80% of dog attack incidents in public places could be prevented.[4]

The BAW studies have not shown that ‘restricted breed dogs’ (i.e. dogs bred for fighting) are excessively represented in the incidence of dog attacks on humans.  Any dog can bite if sufficiently provoked.  However, because of the relative strength of fighting dogs and their habit of tenaciously gripping their victims with their teeth and shaking them, anecdotal evidence suggests that the risks of injury and death may be greater from these types of dogs if and when they do attack humans.

Myth #4: Feeding stray cats is being kind

A survey by Monash University in 2005 found that 22 per cent of people said they sometimes fed a cat that did not belong to them.[5]  People may feel they are being kind because they know that stray cats suffer from starvation, disease and injuries from fights with other cats. But because they are ‘unowned’, stray cats are deprived of the regular meals, shelter, grooming and veterinary care that owned cats receive.  Feeding stray cats provides people with a short-term ‘feel good factor’ that acts against the long-term welfare of the cats.  It is a form of preference failure. Being a stray cat is not a sustainable lifestyle, with an average life-expectancy of only 3 years.  So feeding them actually perpetuates the misery of these poor animals (and their kittens), which on a rational basis should either be adopted as pets or euthanased.

An adverse side-effect is that stray cats are also more likely to kill birds, possums and other native animals than owned cats, at least some of which are kept indoors overnight.  The kindest thing to do for a stray cat would be to ‘adopt’ it (but have it checked for a microchip by a vet first).  If this is not possible, contact an animal welfare organisation such as the RSPCA or the Cat Protection Society.

Myth #5: Livestock are slaughtered inhumanely in Australia

Slaughter standards in Australian abattoirs are dictated by the Australian Standard for the Hygienic Production of Meat and Meat Products for Human Consumption (AS 4696 — 2007), which requires that:

1. Animals are slaughtered in a way that prevents unnecessary injury, pain and suffering to them and causes them the least practicable disturbance; and.

2. Before killing commences, animals are stunned in a way that ensures that the animals are unconscious and insensible to pain beforehand, and do not regain consciousness or sensibility before dying.[6]

There is provision for a religious exemption under an approved arrangement that allows ritual slaughter involving the commencement of killing without prior stunning.  However, such animals must then be stunned without delay to ensure that they are rendered unconscious whilst dying.  Personally, I am opposed to such religious exemptions, on the grounds of cruelty.

Myth #6: Meat chickens are kept in cages

Many people are surprised to learn that no meat chickens (also known as broilers) are kept in cages, at least in Australia.  They are farmed in large ventilated barns or sheds where they are free to roam large distances, albeit under crowded conditions, as shown in the photograph below.  Traditionally, this has not been done for welfare reasons but to allow faster and easier collection for processing, which is usually done at night.

An RSPCA approved Australian meat chicken shed

An RSPCA approved Australian meat chicken shed

In Australia, feed lines and pans run the length of the shed and are supplied automatically by silos from outside. Water lines run the length of the shed, with drinkers at regular intervals. Water and feed are placed so that chickens are never more than about 2 metres from food and water.

Myth #7: Free range chooks live mainly outdoors

Chickens naturally prefer to live under cover from predators and bad weather. In the wild, they forage for insects and other food beneath shrubs and undergrowth, only venturing out into the open for short periods of time.

Free range chickens preferring shade (source: Wikimedia Commons)

Free range chickens preferring shade (source: Wikimedia Commons)

There are no government regulations about free-range farming practices – this is left to industry self-regulation.  Australian industry standards specify that free-range chickens only need free access to the outdoors – they don’t actually need to spend any time outside a shed to qualify as free-range.  As a result, free-range chickens don’t usually spend the bulk of their time in the open, as illustrated by the photograph above. Some free-range farms have sheds on wheels or other movable housing structures.

Myth #8: Pigs are permanently kept in sow stalls

This claim is often made by animal rights activists but is untrue.  The reason for confinement in sow stalls (gestation stalls) is to minimise early abortions as a result of stress from aggressive behaviour between adult female pigs (sows).[7]

The endorsed Australian national standards for pig farming specify a maximum confinement period of 6 weeks during the initial stages of pregnancy.  Parts of the pork industry are voluntarily introducing shorter periods, but these will require more supervision (and thus higher labour costs) to separate sows that fight.

There is also some public confusion between gestation stalls and farrowing crates, especially when photographs of the latter (see below) are described as the former.

Sow farrowing crate (source: Wikimedia Commons)

Sow farrowing crate (source: Wikimedia Commons)

Sows are moved in groups to farrowing sheds approximately one week prior to giving birth.  In Australia, a farrowing crate is only used for piglet feeding purposes.  It allows the sow less movement than a gestation stall, but provides creep areas along either side for the piglets. Adjustable rails alongside the sow slow her movement when she is lying down, thus protecting piglets from being crushed.  As soon as the piglets are weaned, the sow is moved to either a much larger pen or outdoors.

Myth #9: Sheep mulesing is cruel and unnecessary

Mulesing is the removal of wrinkled skin from the breech or breech and tail of a sheep using mulesing shears.  Until accepted alternatives are developed and the current practice can be phased out, mulesing of lambs remains an important husbandry practice in Australia for animal health, welfare and management reasons.  The principal reason is to reduce urine and faecal soiling or dag formation in the breech and tail wool; and thus minimise susceptibility to even more painful breech and tail flystrike.

Currently, cost effective chemical, management and breeding solutions are not available for all types of production systems in Australia and mulesing is a valuable tool for the prevention of breech flystrike for certain production environments and sheep types.  Although potentially painful, mulesing can be a net welfare benefit.

Available scientific research suggests that it is possible to achieve pain relief in conjunction with mulesing. Pain relief is most effectively achieved through a combination of approaches such as the pre-mulesing administration of a systemic pain relief drug, followed by a post-mulesing application of topical anaesthetic to deal with the ensuing period of pain associated with the inflammatory phase.  That is to say, a combination of short and long-acting pain relief drugs may be needed to provide more complete pain relief.[8]

Myth #10: Fish can’t feel pain

The International Association for the Study of Pain’s widely used definition states: ‘Pain is an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage, or described in terms of such damage’.[9]  Unlike in humans, pain is difficult to observe and measure in fish, especially in the absence of tissue damage.

Even when pain avoidance is observed experimentally in fish, a possible explanation is that it is a conditioned response to stimuli without the adverse emotional experience necessary for suffering.  Because of these observational difficulties, the conclusion that fish experience pain is often inferred on the basis of comparative neural anatomy and physiology. Some scientists are currently of the view that all higher vertebrates feel pain; and that certain invertebrates, like the lobster and octopus, might too.

The current approach in Australian animal welfare regulation is to give the fish the benefit of the doubt, and to presume until further research that fish can feel pain.  Whilst painless fishing may be almost impossible to achieve, banning fishing would also be politically impossible in a democracy.  The current regulatory approach is to minimise pain by requiring fish to be either killed or released as soon as possible after capture.

Conclusion

It may come as no surprise that I support the current scientific approach to animal welfare rather than an anthropomorphic or animal rights approach.  My main reasons for this view are:

  • Evidence-based animal welfare standards are being progressively adopted by Australian governments.
  • Such standards are more likely to be enforced and complied with than other approaches.
  • As a result, animal welfare is steadily improving in Australia.
  • This approach maintains the competitiveness of Australian agriculture.

Tim Harding B.Sc. has worked for the last 13 years as a regulatory consultant, amongst other things evaluating state and national animal welfare regulations for both domestic animals and livestock.  

References: 

[1] Warren, Katrina.  DrKatrina.com web site.

[2] Pet MD web site. Dietary Reactions in Dogs.

[3] Bradshaw, John (2011) In Defence of Dogs. Penguin Books, London.

[4] Harding, Tim (2005)  Proposed Domestic (Feral And Nuisance) Animals Regulations 2005 – Regulatory Impact Statement. Department of Primary Industries, Attwood.

[5]  http://www.theage.com.au/environment/animals/citys-stray-cat-problem-has-melbourne-throwing-a-hissy-fit-20130610-2o07j.html

[6] Browne, Gavin  (2007)  Australian Standard for the Hygienic Production of Meat and Meat Products for Human Consumption (AS 4696 — 2007). Food Regulation Standing Committee Technical Report Series 3.  CSIRO PUBLISHING / Food Regulation Standing Committee, Collingwood.

[7] Harding, Tim and Rivers, George (2006) Proposed Model Code Of Practice For The Welfare Of Animals – Pigs: Regulatory Impact Statement. CSIRO PUBLISHING, Collingwood.

[8] Harding, Tim and Rivers, George (2013) Proposed Australian Animal Welfare Standards And Guidelines – Sheep: Consultation Regulation Impact Statement. Animal Health Australia, Canberra.

[9] Bonica, John (1979) The need of a taxonomy. Pain. 1979; 6(3): 247–8.

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